Notes From the Field: Branching Out of STEM

By KT Goyette

Art by Maanasi Shyno

The other day, in my off-term extra-fun-with-Latin reading group, my professor asked us if we knew, back in ye early days of high school, what we wanted to be when we grew up, what we had told the adults in our lives when they inevitably asked.

“Oh, sure,” I said. “Depends on the year, but I was going to be an astrophysicist, and then I was going to be a biologist.”

The other students in the group laughed. I’m not sure if anyone knew that I still am, a bit pathetically at this point, pretending to be a bio minor on DartWorks. (I’ll kill it for sure sometime senior winter, when I’ve failed to take a bio class for five straight terms.) Instead, I’m known as an ancient history major and history history minor, who takes two, three, sometimes four classics classes every term.

But here’s the thing. Back in high school, and certainly back in middle school, I was a STEM kid. Even back in my more youthful college days. I spent the summer between sophomore and junior year studying calculus, so that I could take both multivariable calculus and linear algebra senior year. I gave up the chance to learn Greek (Greek!) to take statistics (statistics!). I spent the summer between senior and freshman year (there may be a pattern here) doing every problem in a chemistry textbook I kinda-stole from high school, so that I could take a placement exam during O-Week and go right into orgo. I’d come back, in the mid or late afternoon, from an archeological job that essentially involved digging holes in the sun all day, fight with my roommates for the shower, then begrudgingly study until dinner. My parents thought I was nuts, and maybe they were right, because I did get a bit obsessive about it. But I had a plan, and I stuck to it, and I worked. I took the placement exam. Aced it. Started orgo freshmen winter. Studied twenty hours a week. Did terribly in lab. Did worse on every test. Got the lowest grade I have ever gotten in my life.

It was around this time that I let myself acknowledge something I had been suppressing, ignoring, and denying for a while. STEM was making me, if not always actively miserable, less happy than some other academic pursuits were. Uh-oh.

I’d had a hole in my schedule during orientation, and had gone to a pre-pre-med meeting, and had learned about the Wonderful Pre-Health Advising Program. Because I like structure, and because I’d taken AP Bio in high school, I decided to be a pre-med. So I met with my Pre-Health Advisor, and made all sorts of charts, plotting how I could fit in every required course. This rather filled up my schedule, and limited my elective options. No time to start learning Greek. No time to keep brushed up on my Latin. Yet I’d scroll through lists of classes in humanities departments, trying to determine the best “fun classes” to fit in among biochem and physics and what have you. “Fun classes?” Meaning the classes I was taking in the bio department, the math department, weren’t fun? Meaning that the classes I was taking in the history department, the English department, were fun? Again: Uh-oh.

For my first two terms in college, I didn’t let myself take any Latin courses. I decided that Classics Squad Katie was the Katie of high school, and now I was pre-med, and, tragically, didn’t have time for that anymore. The new me lasted until I did so wretchedly awful the first half of orgo that I decided not to take the second half, and instead, to treat myself to an all-humanities term. I took Roman Satire, and I loved it. This should not have surprised me as much I told myself it did.

Taking Latin in high school was the first time I realized the humanities were not completely B.S., as I had truly believed in middle school. My first few years, I loved the grammar. I loved thinking about all the ways a sentence could be put together, how, in some ways, it was so much easier and clearer to communicate a thought in Latin than in English — and conversely, how much easier and clearer some thoughts can come through in English. I still feel this way. I tutor now, and sometimes, when we come across a particularly well-constructed sentence, my students have to put up with my rhapsodizing, about the clear expression, the subtle nuances, the way things just fit, for a few minutes before I shut up and we keep reading.

And then the literature! The sounds of all those liquid vowels and flowing consonants and half-rolled r’s, all coming together to form words, and those words to form ideas. Dido blazes with a love fated to kill her, Daphne fails to escape the rapacious Apollo, Catullus careens from the highest highs of emotion to the lowest lows! Well. I could go on, but let’s just say I have Vivamus Atque Amemus permanently tattooed on my body, forever, for a reason. (“Let Us Live and Let Us Love”from a very straight poem, but I’ve rubbed my gay little hands all over it.)

So, yes. When I finally let myself return to the loving arms of the classics, there was no escape. I had to be a classics major. I shunted bio to a minor. I added another minor in history. I got up every day and looked forward to my classes, my readings, sometimes even my papers.

But here’s the thing. I felt guilty over the whole affair. I had abandoned STEM, and that made me a bad feminist. Not in the fun, admit-my-imperfections-like-Roxane-Gay-kinda way. The cruelly-leaving-in-the-dust-my-sisters-in-arms kinda way.

There’s been quite the ink spilled to show that women are leaving the STEM path (I don’t know the numbers off the top of my head, but they tend to be pretty horrifying), and to explain why. Everyone has their own pet theory, and here are some common ones: The Oppression. The Patriarchy. The (Sexual) Harassment, and The Sexism, and the Misogyny, and the Good Ol’ Boys Club. Women and girls, even when all they want in life is that sweet, sweet Ph.D. and lab coat, are pushed out because of the cold treatment from their peers, the pressure of society telling them that scientists don’t look like them, their fields becoming devalued as more women enter, the tug of war between a career that expects your all and children that expect your all, and so on and so forth.

There are hundreds, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of programs dedicated to getting and keeping girls interested in STEM. I did quite a few. Yearly Expanding-Your-Horizons days throughout middle school, where we’d meet Real Women Scientists and Do Experiments. (I still have the t-shirts.) Engineeristas Camp at the local university, and Tech Camp when I outgrew that. I learned how to 3D print, and I learned how to use a telescope, and how to analyze a circuit board, and what exactly it was they did at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, and what a physics laboratory looked like in person. I even ran a program for girls in STEM (called, creatively, STEM Girls) for six weeks in the 10th grade, to earn my Girl Scout Girltopia award. I’d hustle over from my high school, during the one day a week that I finished early, and conduct a group of fourth graders through various experiments and feats of engineering. They loved it, from what I can tell, and I really do hope those girls have stuck with STEM.

If they’re anything like me, for a while, they will truly love it, and they will stay with it. All those camps and programs really did work for me. I wasn’t fooling myself, back in ye old days. I truly did want to take bio and chem and calc. I truly did think, for a while, that a Ph.D. and lab coat were in my future.

I don’t know when the magic wore off, and I don’t know why. I never felt pushed out of STEM. I never really felt the sting of The Oppression or The Patriarchy (at least, no worse than in other areas of my life). Half of my math teachers in high school, and all of my math professors at Dartmouth, have been women. My aunt is a chemical engineer. I did the Women in Science Project, and spent two terms freshman year working for a female professor, under the direct supervision of the female lab manager, alongside four female peers. Role models abound. No one has ever told me that science is for boys. No man in science has ever sexually harassed me. According to all the ink spills, I had absolutely no reason to ever leave STEM. I should’ve stuck with it, and this thought haunted me. It still does.

I started to worry about subconscious bias. That the pressures of a misogynistic society could force me out, even if no one ever told me so explicitly. I know I’m affected in other parts of my life — for example, when I feel like I should wear a dress to church or graduations or other nice events, even though everyone in my life is perfectly happy with my butch style. So why not in my choice to pursue the humanities over STEM?

I told my sister some of this. I was laying on her bed, possibly face down, although I might just be remembering that for the Drama. She laughed at me. I was in emotional turmoil, and she laughed, because that’s what sisters are for. (I would like it noted for the record that my sister, who valiantly declared that she hated science and everything about it well into her late teens, now does laboratory research about the psychological development of children.)

“Dude,” she said, “it’s your choice.”

But I don’t always love choice feminism. It gets used to cover everything a woman does as feminist. Choice feminism gives people a space to hide, to pretend that intentions speak louder than actions. But from the outside, of course, intentions can’t be known! When you fill out your occupation on the census form, there’s no separate category for “Housewife Because I Carefully Weighed My Options in a Sexism Free World and Decided I Felt Most Satisfied By It” and “Housewife Because No One’s Ever Told Me I Could Do Something Different.” From the outside, they look the same, and they both hold up the narrative (for those so inclined to believe it) that all women want to be housewives. Besides, our first category can’t even exist! There is no sexism- free world to carefully weigh our options. We’ve been wrapped up in misogyny since we were born, and, without a control group, God only knows how that’s affected our ways of thinking. There Is No Escape.

So. I just can’t agree that conforming to gender roles (leaving STEM and flirting with a potential career in teaching, for example) suddenly becomes empowering just because a woman chooses it. We live in a society, as the kids say, and I can’t just close my eyes and cover my ears and shut that out. I am contributing to the statistics. I will never again be a girl’s scientific role model. I am allowing someone else to be the only woman in the room. This is the choice that I am making. Guilt seems appropriate.

It’s been over a year now, since I really passed the point of no return. It would take quite some doing if I wanted to whirl around and go to med school, or even get a job as a lab tech. But, frankly: I don’t want to, and I’m not going to. Yes, women moving en masse away from science is a bad thing! Yes, it’s something we discourage! Yes, my heart breaks for every girl out there who truly, dearly, loves math and science, but just can’t take the pressure and the loneliness anymore! Yes, maybe in a perfect society, without the taint of misogyny, I would be wrapping up my biophysical chemistry major! Yes, maybe I still do feel guilty, even as I write this essay, even after I thought I was over it! But!

I can’t keep myself away from history and classics. I need it in my life. I can’t force myself to pretend that the humanities are only my runner-up. Do I want to be miserable, and do what I feel like I should do? Or do I want to be happy? It’s a false dichotomy, anyway. I can do what I think I should do, feminism-wise, in the humanities as well, even if it’s in a more scholarly way than a lead-by-example way. Biology didn’t give me much chance to think about, read about, write about the trauma of forced marriages and lack of birth control, the frustration of knowing you can only have political influence through your husband, how misogyny bleeds through into “objective” religious morality. History and classics have.

At the end of the day, I can’t sacrifice my happiness for the sake of the cause, a cause I can try to fulfill otherwise. I’m a person like everyone else, and all I can do is what I can do. Thank you, and goodnight.