Saturday, February 23, 2013

How CART Helped Me Sneak into STEM

I'm terrible at math. I always have been. Despite coming from a family of engineers and teachers (including at least one math teacher, who gave me what turned out to be one of my favorite books as a kid, though unfortunately it didn't rub off all that well), I've never had a talent for it, and when I was younger I had a tendency not to work hard at anything that didn't come naturally. Hint for any small humans who might be reading this: This is a really bad habit to get into. It will come back to bite you in the butt so many times. Repair those small deficiencies when they're small, no matter how much of a grind it might be. You'll thank me later. Anyway, my dislike for arithmetic in elementary school turned into barely passing algebra in middle school turned into failing physics in high school. When I got to college, I had to take four years of math, but fortunately for me it was "Great Books"-style math, where I had to read Euclid and Ptolemy and Lobachevsky and Einstein and talk about them on an abstract level, but never had to take any actual tests on them. Even so, my math grades in college were not particularly great, and I emerged with a B.A. in Liberal Arts plus a pretty deep-seated math phobia. The frustrating thing is that I think math is pretty interesting, even though I have no aptitude to actually do it. And more than that, I absolutely love science, and so much of science is underpinned by math. Right out of college, I briefly enrolled in a post-baccalaureate science program, with the intention of applying to medical school, but the amount of math involved quickly forced me to give up and put that long-held dream on the shelf. I stuck to what I was good at and applied to an MA program in English, which I eventually turned down so that I could go to steno school. It was only after starting work as a CART provider that I realized what a gift I'd been given. Despite my lousy math scores and dreadful number crunching skills, I'd be able to sit in all sorts of math and science classes that people had sweated bullets to test into. I could absorb as much of the material as my brain would let me, and as long as I wrote the words down correctly, it didn't matter if I didn't grok some of the concepts. I wouldn't have to prove my fitness to be there. No tests, no papers, no chance of being called on. I got to be a fly on the wall, getting paid to help my brilliant clients flex their own math and science muscles while I sat back and marveled. Over the years I've been CARTing, I've worked for future economists, architects, pharmacists, doctors, and dentists. Along the way, I've gotten to take in:

Math for Economists
Financial Instruments
International Taxation
Intro to General Relativity
Economics for Urban Planners
Advanced Statistical Methods
Architectural Structures: Steel and Concrete

Plus a ton of gigs that involved anywhere from a drabble to a torrent of math, such as:

Thermal and Statistical Physics
Meetings of Math for America
Meetings of the American Chemical Society

(You can read the complete list, if you're interested, on my Experience Page.)

Even though I don't think I'd be able to recall more than a small fraction of what I've learned in these classes, it's still way more exposure to these subjects than I ever would have been able to get if I'd done it the old fashioned way. Even getting out of the 101 level courses would have been a struggle, but the graduate and professional school material that I've been exposed to would have been stratospherically above my cognitive pay grade. And yet... There I was, sitting in the classes, absorbing all this cool information about the structures and systems that make up our universe. I've even developed sort of a specialty in captioning technical and scientific material. It's my favorite sort of job to take. All for someone who barely managed to learn her times tables. I'll never be a doctor, and I've made my peace with that, but I still get to swim in this stuff every day. Of all the gifts CART has given me, this might be the one I'm most grateful for.