My Reconciliation with Science

March 31, 2004
A campus gargoyle

This essay can only begin with an apology to the admissions office. Folks, I defrauded you. I didn't mean to, mind you. I am a journalist, but when I applied to Duke eight years ago, I had every intention of becoming a biologist. I had been to camp at the Duke Marine Lab--twice--and done well in Biological Anthropology and Anatomy 93 as a PreCollege geek. I had also won a state science fair in seventh grade. That is why my early-decision application to Duke waxed so poetic about biology. That is why I more or less promised you fine people in admissions that, if you accepted me, I would find the cure for cancer or at least win the Nobel.

But that was all before the incident with the sea urchins. To make a long and embarrassing story short: Just after submitting my application to Duke, I designed an AP Biology experiment involving the breeding of urchins. I managed to kill forty-six of them before giving up. (They died of mysterious, unknown causes that surely involved my carelessness.) With my application already on file, bragging about my future as a great scientist, I'd realized I had no lab technique. I did, however, have an A+ in English. By the time I got to Duke, I was gunning for the Pulitzer, not the Nobel, and I certainly didn't "hope to study biology," as I'd claimed. In fact, I hoped never to take a lab class again. I might have managed it, too, if it hadn't been for the Primate Center. And that is where this apology turns into an effusive thank you.

In the fall of my junior year at Duke, having studiously avoided science classes, I found myself in need of one if I had any intention of graduating. The boy I was dating begged me to be his partner in BAA 144L, and I would have, gladly, except for that last letter in the course code, which looked more like an "F" than an "L" to me. But he was a persuasive young man, and I ended up in the class, which was conducted entirely in the Primate Center. It turned out to be an unconventional lab, to say the least.

Instead of spending mornings crouched over delicate instruments, the students in BAA 144L strapped on hiking boots. We spent the first half of the semester romping through enclosures in Duke Forest, tracking lemurs and recording their every move. The second half we spent in the center itself, peering through cages and designing our own observational protocols. I learned more from the second half, of course--that is almost always the way in lab classes--but it's an episode from the first half that sticks with me.

We were following a family of three ruffed lemurs, including an infant that was still learning to jump from branch to branch. He tried one morning and failed, narrowly missing my head as he came crashing down to the forest floor. I sympathized; I had just gotten my first paper back and, despite my hard work, had managed only a B. I, too, had tiptoed reluctantly out on a limb--and fallen. But the lemur managed to climb back up, and, eventually, so did I. By the end of the semester, he was leaping like a frog, and I was earning A's. More important, I had finally made peace with science.

Looking back on it, I know the Primate Center was the only place I could have done that. Twice a week, we tamed wild creatures with only scientific principles. How could I not have loved it? Yet, had I not taken the course, I would have assumed, as I did in high school, that biology was simply about test tubes and titers and strange substances on wafer-thin microscope slides--chemistry, essentially, a subject for which I had neither talent nor desire.

I thought about that a lot when Curriculum 2000 came along a year later, trumpeting the need for science classes geared toward non-majors. And I think about it today when I hear biology at Duke confused with genetics and genomics. Non-majors can learn about the life sciences through theory and microscopy. But how many of them will come to love the life sciences if their studies are bereft of actual examples of life? That, to me, is the crucial educational importance of the Primate Center. If ever there was a place to fall in love with science--or to remember why you did in the first place--it is there.

Halfway through my senior year, I admitted to myself that biology was still a passion, no matter how much I feared it. I managed to cobble together a second major in BAA. The department held the graduation ceremony at, where else, the Primate Center. I went on to become a writer, just as I'd planned after the sea-urchin debacle, but six months into an internship at Newsweek, I realized I couldn't let go of the lab after all and begged for a science-writing position. It is not what I promised the admissions office eight years ago, but I hope they're not too disappointed.

As for my lab partner, he will graduate from Duke Med in May. We are to marry a month later. The Chapel was a foregone conclusion for our ceremony, but I had to laugh when someone joked that we should hold the reception at the Primate Center. They had no idea.