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Learn Again

I’m in the middle — the frustrating, slow, and muddy middle — of learning how to be bad at science. How to be bad at one very specific part of a subdiscipline of a scientific field that I love, in theory, but currently suck at.


On my CV I’ve worked very hard to present myself as someone who is good at science. I am, academically, good on paper: I’ve got the advanced degrees to prove it. I’ve been a “fellow” more than once. And while I wasn’t born, Athena-style, a fully-formed botanist, I don’t remember the beginning, the part of my education where I learned how to be bad at plants. I think my plant ecology skills were honed so slowly — from gardening with my mom as a kid, hiking at summer camp, working in outdoor education in college — that I became good at plants imperceptibly, and by the time I took a field botany course in grad school, the taxonomy and morphology were at least familiar, if not already labeled correctly, in my mental map. I grounded my PhD research in field sites that supported the same plant communities I studied as a master’s student. When I began, I bought a new field guide, but I honestly could have just carried the old dichotomous keys across state lines.


And then I decided to become a paleoecologist.


There are 99 glass slides of pollen in a box that represent my postdoc work. They cover 408 cm of sediment from the bottom of a pond in Acadia National Park. As a PhD student, I spent four years monitoring the plants on the ridge above this pond — I know every stem that grows there now; the slides should tell me what used to grow there, the pollen like a fingerprint of past vegetation communities. If you gave me the lace of veins left behind from a decomposing leaf on that ridge, if you handed me an empty fruit stalk, I could identify the plant to species, almost carelessly. But when I look at my slides, I feel like I am drowning in unknowns. Under the microscope, my plants become anonymous. Pollen, it turns out, is not intrinsically identifiable. When I look at a birch tree, for example, I don’t need to think about how to parse it, the identification is reflexive. When I look at birch pollen, I see shapes, kind of rounded-triangles or triangular-balls, with nubbins at the corners, and nothing about it screams birch. Not yet.


I am 35, and I am a beginner, learning plants again and for the first time. I say for the first time because last time around, I was not cognizant of the learning process. I didn’t know I was ever bad at plants. But I am definitely bad at pollen.


Pollen is humbling me. I’m learning how to tell tricolpate grains from tricolporate grains, making Pinus v Picea lists to remember which one has an indistinct transition zone between its rugulate bladders and stippled body, and assigning the keys on my keyboard in the program PolyCounter, so that when I tap ‘k’ it counts one Fagus. But, I’m also learning how to inhabit this research: when is my best time to count pollen, how do I increase my daily hours at the microscope without burning out, and when I see improvement in how quickly I count a slide, how do I know if I’m getting better at pollen, or just getting sloppy. I’m still so bad at pollen, that I don’t know the difference between feeling genuinely stuck on a hard identification or just seeing a common grain from an uncommon angle. It’s hard to see a way out.


I’ve been bad at pollen for a couple months now. I was so afraid of being bad, so stuck in this feeling, that I stalled in the learning phase. I stuck to my box of reference slides — each one a simple collection of a single pollen type, labelled with the genus or species it holds — and tentatively shuffled through. When I would peek at a real slide, a slide from my project, the chaos of unknowns would overwhelm me. I dragged my feet; I didn’t feel qualified to start counting. I knew that I would, someday, probably be good at pollen because at some point in the future the 99 slides would be identified and counted, I just didn’t feel connected to that process.


I still haven’t gracefully learned how to be bad at science. But, I have started collecting advice, and noticing my stumbling blocks, and I think that eventually these reflections will help me empathize with students in a way that I couldn’t before because I didn’t know what it felt like to be bad at plants. I love the Tall Heights song, Learn Again. Full disclosure: I knew those guys in high school, and so I might have been there in the study halls in the song. However, high school me was probably dutifully doing her homework, and generally learning how to be good at academic things and would not have identified with the lyrics on this level. Postdoc me is all about learning again. Occasionally I rewrite the lyrics and sing them to my pollen. “Sometimes I forget to do, the things that paleoecologists do…


The most meaningful advice I’ve found about being bad at something you love is from Ira Glass. I didn’t go to high school with Ira Glass and so this is slightly less personal, and on top of that he is speaking to creatives, and not necessarily scientists, but this resonates. This American Life superfans can listen to this recording of Ira’s advice; it’s slightly different from the quote as transcribed on GoodReads (below):

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

My pollen is my story here. And I just need to start counting pollen. And if I have to come back and recount the first five or ten slides, the first twenty slides, I will do that. I will fight my way through. I will learn again how to be bad, so that I can eventually become not a static good, but a growing better.


Banner image: Anna Bahnweg, Creative Commons. (This is a scanning electron microscope image of buttercup pollen grains; my compound microscope pollen counting experience is significantly less fancy)

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