Why be open about all this?
Both at various points in my life and in modern hindsight, I have found myself confused by the line between which struggles/differences/challenges were seen as shameful and meant to be hidden versus those which are understood and supported. Over all sorts of things—from my longstanding proclivity for keeping my hair long and liking rainbow-colored items and wearing two different socks to being neuroatypical in various ways and having a brain injury to my stature and my self-esteem to not having had parents who encouraged scientfic inquiry and study. Of course I am very glad that that line has advanced quite far in many directions even just in the past decade. And of late I do like to remind myself that—despite everything—mainstream American culture is now more inclusive than it ever has been. Especially among young people.
But, ever overly concerned with what should be, I again find myself compelled to do something against which I have been advised. It has been important to me to help younger scientists navigate the challenging waters of success in physics. From advising and helping younger students as an undergraduate to significant research mentoring efforts as a graduate student to devoting my thesis to pedagogically explaining an important and often-misunderstood topic. In my thesis I also thanked the doctors I saw during my time in graduate school, which was the first time I mentioned the challenges I’ve had with mental illness publicly. In a relatively short period of time thereafter I had multiple physicists thank me for doing so and state it had prompted them to bring their mental illness concerns to a doctor.
Thus emboldened, and with some fleeting moments of self-confidence after having finished my doctorate, I think that being open and public with the variety of challenges I have faced can help push that line outward in multiple further directions. I don’t know many established scientists who identify themselves as neurodivergent or are public about having had a brain injury. Nor many who discuss having been raised as an idealogical extremist, or not having a familial support system through graduate school.
I recognize that what I’m sharing is at this point well outside the mainstream. But I think in many ways the time is ripe for these issues. I think the pandemic is going to necessitate a reevaluation of our cultural atittudes around mental health, as we all deal with the effects of a year’s worth of isolation. And of late there has also been more recognition in educated, elite circles of just how large the anti-academic ideas and similar beliefs I was raised with are in America. Toward the goal of long-term cultural change, it is incredibly important to expose young people in these geographic or cultual arenas to science, and to scientists. The eventual hope being that children in these communities who study science can have an impact on the long-term evolution of cultural beliefs. And I can’t really count as representation unless I’m open about all of these difficulties.