Empirical Existence

According to my mother…as if that statement isn’t concerning enough… at around 18 months’ old I was seriously obsessed with shoelaces. Yes, shoelaces.

Apparently, I could regularly be found with my toddler sized feet in my father’s size 11 shoes, quietly occupying myself with the shoelaces. No toddler tantrums here. Just quiet shoe examinations!

Supposedly, in this ‘shoelace period’, I would search out my family member’s shoes, put them on and squat down close to the ground so I could concentrate on the shoelaces, staring at them for hours. Oftentimes, the staring turned into a concentrated effort of unthreading and rethreading the shoelaces. FOR HOURS.

Am I on the spectrum? No. Would I be diagnosed that way now? Possibly.

The story goes, I would become transfixed with slowly pulling the shoelaces out and then attempting to put them back in the holes the same way, endeavouring to work out the mysterious pattern that sometimes ended with a bow. Not normal behaviour for a child that age I’m sure -isn’t that when I should have been learning to play with other kids or something??

But what this charming story (thanks Mum) confirms is that I was always curious and always trying to figure out how things ‘worked’ in the world around me. And perhaps not a big surprise that I later turned to a world of science and research - the search for knowledge through observations and experiments.

From my first high school science class, it seemed my career path was set. I still remember the day I first learnt about DNA and how it is made up of only four bases (A, C, G and T) and how just these four letters combined to (and, I’m jumping a few steps here but essentially) make things as diverse as bacteria, eucalypts, elephants, and me. This DNA code thing blew my mind (and still kinda does).

Later, after the mind was blown, when I’d switched the shoes and shoelaces for text books and a lab coat, I got my PhD in genetics and started a postdoctoral research program. And, after all that, it was pretty hard to admit to myself I didn’t want a career in scientific research anymore. There were some extenuating circumstances (it’s a long story, a post for another day perhaps) but ultimately, I also realised I wasn’t cut out for it. Not really. And wow, did that shake my identity! For years my self-image wobbled. Who was I if I wasn’t a scientist?

What I’ve come to realise, by reflecting on my shoelaces a little bit more (usually in a mopey way while drinking coffee), is that my fundamental fascination is with patterns, and the processes and forces that create them and change them. It just so happens science has a lot of obvious ones. And the patterns I saw in high school science drew me in.

But just like those shoelaces in the shoes, there are other patterns (and processes) everywhere that I can (and do) spend hours observing and analysing. The lab coat is gone but I still examine and experiment in my own way. Analysing the patterns I see in people, in university operations, in research careers (and in a way too judgey way, what makes an efficient barista!).

I can, and do, continue my empirical existence…

I may no longer be a practising scientist, but I’m still inquisitive and inquiring and I’m still striving to better understand the world I live in. And I’m still incredibly passionate about the community of researchers I’ve come to know and the incredible research they do. I think I’ll always have long periods of staring at shoelaces (the ones in my Chuck Taylors seem to be constantly undone and ready to trip me up) but I think I’ve finally found my true calling... helping researchers with theirs.

Narelle Tunstall, Research and Researcher Development.