There was a time when I had nothing left to lose in my scientific career. I had almost nothing to show for three years of postdoctoral research at Caltech, and I had lost my father, my inspiration in science, during that time. Without a good endorsement from my postdoctoral advisor, I had few options. It felt like being flushed out to sea in a rip current. You’re supposed to swim parallel to the shore to escape a rip current, but instead I turned around and headed for the open ocean. I abandoned my career path and began pursuing what really interested me: the fundamental mysteries of the universe. As soon as did, I saw the pursuit of science from a completely different perspective – you can do anything you want, as long as you can fund it.
Around this time I came across a wonderful analogy for the great mystery of the universe that I wanted to understand. It was written by Douglas Hofstadter, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Gödel, Escher, Bach, in his characteristically colorful style. He describes the whimsically named Careenium (a hypothetical device intentionally devised to evoke the word “cranium”) as a giant billiard ball table with billions of billiard balls careening about. The balls have a very slight magnetic tug towards one another, so that when you zoom far enough out from this scene, you see clumps of billiard balls tumbling around. These clumps can crash into one another, join, break apart, absorb individual billiard balls, and eject others. The question, not intended to be answered by this model, is: “How can the clumps act of their own volition, without simply being at the mercy of the physics that drives the motion of the billiard balls they are made of?” Put more succinctly by Hofstadter, “Who pushes whom around inside the Careenium?”
I sat at my dining table thinking about this question as I folded dozens of square sheets of paper into origami pentagons. You have time for this sort of thing when you are unemployed. I was also thinking of the theoretical model I learned about at Caltech, a tantalizing window into this Careenium question, though it had not been part of my research when I was there. It was a model of tile assembly, consisting of squares with sticky edges labeled with numbers to tell you how the edges match up. I aligned the numbers on the edges of the pentagons in front of me to make a pattern called Penrose Tiling – an intricate arrangement that never repeats. But something was missing. The sticky edges of the pentagons, like the magnetic tug on the billiard balls of the Careenium, didn’t dictate the bigger picture. The tiles needed to act together as clumps in order to organize into the Penrose tiling, and this meant that they needed more than sticky edges – they needed to communicate with each other.
I felt a surge of excitement as I developed this idea of communication among tiles. It began to look like a legitimate research proposal, not just philosophical musings on the mysteries of the universe. But, the problem remained that the Monrovia Institute of Advanced Study (a.k.a. my house) was not highly regarded in scientific circles, and the funding source (my husband) was soon going to need me to chip in again on the mortgage for the Monrovia Institute. I decided to follow some advice I received at Caltech: find a professor to write a grant with on your research idea, and if it gets funded you’ll be able to do that research as a postdoc. I had to find the right professor, and for that I needed to present my idea at a conference.
It’s an awkward fact that conference name tags list your affiliation; at least it’s awkward when you have none. Mine listed “Monrovia.” I had managed to get into this Caltech-hosted conference through the help of a friend, despite the objections of the organizer – the very same professor whose advice I was following. At the conference dinner, I found myself seated awkwardly in the vicinity of, but not at, the table where my former advisor and all his lab members sat. Later, I stood in front of my poster, which was festooned with origami pentagons. It almost looked more like an art installation. I had steeled myself for this, though, and I held my head high with the inner conviction that I was pursuing the right research question. It helped to have some friends there, too. I stood my ground by my poster, where I met with just the professor I needed to speak to, Ned Seeman, known as the founder of DNA Nanotechnology. A fan of art and elaborate tile patterns, he understood my proposal immediately. “Why don’t you come to NYU?” he asked. “We can write a grant on this.”
The National Science Foundation’s grant application and review process was not designed to spare anyone’s feelings or meet anyone’s personal timetables. We wrote the NSF grant with Natasha Jonoska, a mathematics professor in Florida, proposing to create DNA structures that Ned and I thought could signal to each other to coordinate their assembly into something like the Penrose Tiling. Natasha helped us embed this idea into a mathematical framework that captured a piece of the Careenium question in a rigorous way. As we waited to hear back, I couldn’t help but wonder who was pushing whom around in this whole Careenium of scientific endeavors.
In the interim, I began working as a math teacher, earning enough to help pay down the mortgage on the Monrovia Institute. I taught remedial arithmetic at The Art Institute of California -Hollywood, as far a cry from Caltech as you might think it is from the name. I had time to reflect on the journey to this turning point in my life. I realized that being set adrift by my experience at Caltech had been the best thing to happen to my scientific career. Before, I had been pushed towards mundane questions and projects. Now, as I floated through this sea, or Careenium, I could say that I was moving in the right direction, the direction of my choice, tackling the questions that I found most interesting.
Yet, it could still come to an abrupt end. I realized that I no longer had nothing to lose. These two possible futures—the postdoc at New York University, and the math instructor position at The Art Institute—now stood in stark contrast to each other. We waited. My friends optimistically assumed I would get the postdoc, but I knew better. Only 10 to 15 percent of NSF grant requests were funded. Finally, Ned called me with the news and welcomed me to his group. We got the grant!
Jennifer E. Padilla created DNA tiles that used local signals to coordinate their assembly during her postdoc at NYU and published the work in Angewandte Chemie. She became a research professor at Boise State University for two years before making an obliquely foreshadowed career change into fine art, where she weaves precise and technical scientific and mathematical content into her artwork.