I’ve been adopted by a physics class in the Adopt a Physicist program (like Swans on Tea has), and they’re asking me about my career (here’s Swans on Tea’s response to a similar question).  So, this is as good a chance as any to write about my favorite analogy, and what my career has to do with acidophilus bacteria.

One of the students asked me:

I have taken a lot of math and science courses in high school, and I will be taking a general psychology course next semester.
As of right now, I’m thinking of double majoring in biology and psychology. I have a lot of ideas of what to do with that, like being a forensic scientist, a behavioral analysist, or (recently) a shark biologist/behavioralist.
Have you always been interested in psychology/physics? And did you know what you wanted to major in and become before you got to college?

I replied:

I think that double majoring (as long as it gives you the chance to explore subjects outside of your majors and not sacrifice your entire life) is a great idea, because it gives you experience in more than one thing. Today’s careers are multidisciplinary.

I’ve always been interested in psychology and physics. I’m curious about how the world works, and about how people work. There are a lot of people, I’ve found, who have that dual curiosity. More than you’d think.

I was very conflicted about my major. I went to college as a physics major and switched to psychology. I felt that I didn’t “have what it takes” to be a physics major. In retrospect, I believe that being the only woman in the class had something to that. Two years after I dropped the major, I found out that I was one of the best in the class.

In my junior year I began to take a lot of science and physics classes again. I finished my psychology thesis while enrolled in junior-level physics classes, and wasn’t taking any psychology at all. I’ve always been pulled strongly between the two. It wasn’t until I found out about all the interesting careers out there (like science writing and science education) that I realized that what I wanted to do — to blend psychology and physics in some way — was possible.

The analogy I give with my career path, which I believe is true of many, is that it’s like how a bacteria finds food. They don’t know where the food is, but if they move a little to the right, they sense that they’re closer. They move a little bit north, and they get even closer. So they wander around, “sniffing” their way, and eventually find the food. They don’t take a straight-line path. In math terms, what they sense is a “gradient” (or change) in acidity, or heat, or sweetness. Similarly, we as people don’t know where it is that we want to go. We just sniff it out and realize it’s a little “sweeter” in this direction, and wander around until we bump into something we like.

Don’t sweat finding the right path. Follow your curiosity and do what you like and good things will grow from it.

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