Is Diversity Really Such a Bad Thing?

By many measures I am not the stereotypical computer science grad-student: I adore baseball; would much prefer a trip to the beach or casting a line in my pond over well just about anything; heck I even like to watch TV (OH the horror!).  As awful as enjoying a television show may seem, there is always a moment when the stars align and the main character(s) have the oh so important “ah-ha” moment. Back here in reality, many of us can extract these moments from our history and find a decent outline of our chosen paths.

My latest installment occurred this morning… During my morning routine, I grab my iPad skim a few news sites, check my sports feeds, and then move on to social media outlets. As part of this I keep tabs on what is going on back home, so an East Texas news station was among my stops today. A story that was featured served to remind me that the “white hats” do eventually end up on top. With this information tucked under my belt I proceeded with my routine. Today’s final was twitter where a link led me to an amazing interview with Professor Sydney Brenner.
 

For those of you who are not science history buffs, Brenner won the Nobel Prize in 2002 for his work in genetics. He also worked along side Dr. Fredrick Sanger, who is responsible for making DNA sequencing a reality. Brenner’s prospective on the state of science in in the Sanger era is interesting, but the truly fascinating element of the interview are his insights on perceptions within academic systems. Please note that the entire interview by Elizabeth Dzeng can be found in How Academia and Publishing are Destroying Scientific Innovation: A Conversation with Sydney Brenner.

Brenner observes:

“In America you’ve got to have credits from a large number of courses before you can do a PhD. That’s very good for training a very good average scientific work professional. But that training doesn’t allow people the kind of room to expand their own creativity. But expanding your own creativity doesn’t suit everybody. For the exceptional students, the ones who can and probably will make a mark, they will still need institutions free from regulation.”

Though this amazing quote is only one of many Ms. Dzeng shares in her piece, it will likely resonate with me for years to come. You see, my journey thus far has been a far cry from typical: I finished high school early, my undergrad is in journalism, I worked in marketing, was a computer sales rep, dappled in professional photography in my spare time, have many years of computer tech experience, produced a naïve EMR system that non-techies would actually use, and got my masters in CS focused on designing a networking protocol. To top it all off the focus of my PhD is split between biology, communications, and computer science. While I understand that having such a diverse background could indicate a lack of focus, an unwillingness to settle down, and quiet possibly an inability to succeed. However, that is simply not true; many of these things were accomplished in parallel and each endeavor was fruitful.

Yet, as Brenner pointed out, academics become skeptical when you have dared to explore.  In the stillness of the morning, these four sentences provided much needed reassurance that past successes add merit to what I have to offer, not discredit me. Sure  (to quote a country band from the 90s) “(I) may have to go the extra mile to prove them all wrong,” but if only a single person benefits from my work it will still be worth every extra step….

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