After a week of growing mold on bread and germinating grass seed in two-liter bottles, earth sciences week at my grade school in West Virginia culminated in a day of environmentally themed activities and lessons on how to “Give a Hoot and Not Pollute.” For the big finale, all us kids wrote Earth-friendly suggestions on little pieces of paper, tied them to dozens of blue and green helium-filled balloons, and set them free in a deeply flawed effort to save the Earth. As I watched those beautiful, non-biodegradable spheres float away, I knew I wanted to be a scientist.
Excited to do my part for the Earth, I sped through three years of college in Tennessee, majoring (of course) in Environmental Science. I proudly capped my education by scoring an internship with the environmental safety group at a nuclear power plant in Middle-of-Nowhere, Alabama. My real-world experience as an environmentalist consisted of electro-shock sampling fish in cooling channels and learning how to “round” numbers to meet already questionable safety standards for radiation levels surrounding the plant. Not exactly what I had in mind. A month before receiving a degree I didn’t want, a very humid hopelessness began to settle on me. Then Providence rang.
My undergraduate advisor called to ask if I wanted to go to graduate school. His father, “Doc,” an agronomy professor at the University of Florida, had just received a research grant in sustainable agriculture and was recruiting. This salvation took my scientific path further South, in hot pursuit of saving the Earth in a more honest and straightforward way. I joined Doc’s lab, where he taught me how to drive a tractor and determine the impact of fertilizers on the environment. With Doc’s encouragement I decided to take my skills to the next level and go for my Ph.D. I packed up my steel-toed work boots and headed to the nation’s agricultural capital, The Midwest.
Corn is the most important grain in the Midwest, and I joined the lab of Mr. Maize. It should have been a red flag that I was his only student, but this guy was THE corn authority. Plus, he offered a project that seemed interesting. A bizarre phenotype was appearing in ears of corn throughout the region that he dubbed “beer can ear,” because of the corn’s short, stubby appearance. Without any evidence, my professor was convinced the phenotype was caused by cold snaps during early ear development. I was really hoping to learn some new technologies during my degree so I proposed tackling the issue via molecular and genetic approaches. Instead, I found myself lugging horribly stressed corn plants back and forth from greenhouse to cold room, and quantifying results with a yard stick. Not exactly what I had in mind.
Shockingly, after a year of trying various treatment combinations to induce a phenomenon that was as common as winning the lottery, I failed to reproduce the beer can ear. If the project itself wasn’t degrading enough, Mr. Maize began berating me for not cracking the corn mystery with my yard stick. Was I just not using it correctly? I now seriously doubted the path I chose. Never a fan of the pity party, I grabbed hold of my personal roadmap, canned Mr. Maize and joined the lab of a brilliant female scientist who guided me into my current career. In the new lab I learned how to alter genes and measure metabolic changes with biochemistry rather than a yard stick.
It was a bumpy road from littering West Virginia, electrocuting fish in Alabama, and freezing corn in Indiana. But I finally realized my goal of becoming a scientist. My roundabout path was fraught with many possible dead ends, but because I was willing to change course and stand up for my future, I arrived at the destination where I wanted to be.
Amy Marshall-Colon was a postdoc at NYU’s Center for Genomics and Systems Biology. She is now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois in the Department of Plant Biology. She measures how crops respond to climate change using molecular biology, computation, and the occasional yard stick.