Illustration by Angelika Manhart
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when…

Inside Story

By Alexandra Grote

I knew I wanted to be a scientist when… well to be honest, given my interests and hobbies as a child, I was a tad concerned I was most well-suited to become a murderer.

You are worried now, and that is understandable—-but please, stick with me here. We lived on a hillside covered in blackberry brambles, surrounded by eucalyptus trees and open-space, and my parents worked long hours at their jobs. I can see I am only making things worse, so I better just explain—my favorite hobby as a child was scouring the hillside and creek near our house for small critters and bugs, smashing them to bits, and dissecting them apart to see what they were made of.

My favorite victim, by far, was the banana slug. I can no longer remember quite what it was that drew me to them, but I think it had something to do with the fact that they appear to wear their insides on their outside. I was consumed with finding out what was on the inside. My lab space consisted of a tree stump outfitted with a large, sharp rock which I used to smash things open, and some twigs which served as dissecting probes. Countless banana slugs died by my rock. After a long day of slug studies, covered in dirt and mud, I would grab a handful of white daisies that grew at the top of the hill on my way back home. When my mother would ask where I had been and how I could possibly be so dirty, I would explain that I had simply been picking flowers.

Though I couldn’t articulate it then, something told me that telling her the truth—“I was dissecting the guts out of many small things”—would only worry her. I had a toy basket full of dolls that I found totally uninteresting, although I would occasionally bring Brown Bear to consult on dissections. I found it distressing that all the things little girls were supposed to like (flowers, Barbies, tea-parties) paled in comparison to earthworm innards and dismembered spider legs.

I suppose now, in hindsight, I needn’t have worried. I work in a parasitology lab where a non-insignificant portion of my time is spent pulverizing worms in order to extract various things from them, such as DNA and proteins.  To know “worm-smoosher” was an actual grown-up job one could have would have been an immense comfort back then. At the time, I certainly got the sense I was practicing for something- but for what exactly was very unclear. It turns out a PhD in parasitology is a good deal more complicated than worm-smooshing, but the basic motivation remains the same—I am desperate to find out what is inside and how it all works.

There are still difficulties in explaining to people what I do. This might be obvious, but parasitic worms are not the sexiest of subjects to discuss at dinner parties or on dates. It is hard to explain my motivation to someone who has never wondered what is on the inside of a banana slug, especially when they find out there is very little money involved in this pursuit. So when people ask me now about choosing to become a scientist, I explain that, of my two possible choices, it was certainly the lesser of two evils.

Alexandra Grote is a PhD candidate at NYU’s Department of Biology where she studies parasitic nematodes.