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

Serial Obsessions

By Rebecca Martin

When I was in elementary school in the suburbs of Northern California, my mom got me a subscription to Bird Talk magazine because I had expressed an interest in parrots. Lying on my stomach over the side of my bed, I read the latest issue cover to cover every month. When I wasn’t reading Bird Talk, I was checking out books on parrots at the library. During recess I could often be found reciting the differences, to whomever would listen, between a yellow-naped Amazon parrot and a golden-headed conure. My teachers would sometimes have to stop me from sharing these fun facts in the middle of class. My favorite part of learning about birds was finding out about their personalities. African grays were smart but prickly. Hyacinth macaws were gentle giants. Cockatoos could be cuddly and sweet, but you really didn’t know what you were going to get.

I grew addicted to that state of absorption, where my mind blocked out everything else going on in the world except for the new parrot information and how it connected to what I already knew. I moved out of my obsession with birds as I left 4th grade, switching over to cats, then dogs, and then to the idea that I was adopted or that my mom had had an affair with a darker-skinned mailman (a hypothesis my mom’s friend joked about one day when she was over and that I latched onto immediately). For about two solid weeks after school, I would sneak around the house jotting down meticulous notes on one of my dad’s yellow legal pads. I took notes about what my mom was doing (usually cooking dinner), the content of the paperwork in the desk (electricity bills and grocery store receipts), and the photo albums on the bookshelves (was there evidence of me always being this tan? even in the winter?). I reviewed my notes at the end of each day, trying to find clues. The results of my investigation were inconclusive.

In high school the focus of my obsession became synchronized swimming. My mom had seen an ad for a synchronized swimming summer program and signed me up to get me out of the house. When the coaches discovered I had long legs and could do the splits, they asked me to join the team. Several years later, I was on the A-team, going to school in the morning until noon, and then swimming from the afternoon into the evening.

Long legs aside, I loved understanding the mechanics of the various moves, and then doing them over and over again until they were executed perfectly. In one type of move – a spin – the swimmer is upside down with her legs together in the air up to her mid-thighs, turning herself under the water, like a screw driver screwing in a screw. I spent hour after hour, day after day, spinning away until I could feel exactly what it felt like to drill down into the water without so much as a tilt.

All the years of researching the behaviors of animals, the mystery behind why I don’t look like my parents, and the thoughtful repetition needed to master synchronized swimming led me to a career in science.

As a neuroscientist, preoccupation with fine details and with methodically figuring out how things work is now my job. I never knew I wanted to be a scientist and I still don’t (and I’m still not 100% sure I am not my old mailman’s love child), but I guess I’ve been doing science all along, so why stop now?


Rebecca Martin, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher in developmental cognitive neuroscience at NYU, and a former six-time member of the United States National Team for synchronized swimming.