Life as an Extreme Sport

End of Year Reflections – Or, Why You Can Blame Carl

In my religious tradition, the end of the year is a time for reflection and contemplation; what happened over the course of the year, how will it influence your upcoming year, what lessons did you learn, how will those be implemented, and so on. It’s generally a relatively quiet thing – and yes, should be done according to the lunar calendar, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’m going cultural on this one.

And so, it was with reflection at the end of the year – admittedly done in an earlier time zone, since I actually spent NYE in Brooklyn with friends – that I tweeted a simple but very heartfelt sentiment: You know, Twitter basically changed my life, several times over, this last year.

Almost all of the opportunities I’ve had this year, I can trace directly to being on Twitter. Now, of course, there’s the Seneca quote that says luck is when preparation meets opportunity, and some could argue that my preparation was key to jumping on opportunity, but the reality feels quite different for me. What I experienced was reaching out to a new world of people who were warm and welcoming and encouraging, and gave me just the smallest pushes I needed to start pursuing dreams I didn’t realize I still had.

One of the biggest examples of this would be a random discussion with science artist Michele Banks that ended up looping in Bora Zivkovic, the blog editor at Scientific American; one thing led to another and I found myself being strong-armed, in the nicest way possible, to submitting a proposal for a Science Online. Which led to my proposal being accepted, and introduced me to my co-presenter, Judy Stone, an internal medicine and infectious disease doctor with a speciality in clinical trials who also writes the utterly marvelous SciAm blog Molecules to Medicine, where she has most recently been tackling the Dan Markingson case.

Another example would be Paul Knoepfler. Paul is a researcher at UC Davis, and he also runs the amazingly informative blog IPSCell, which is a must-read for anyone interested in stem cell research. Paul covers it all, from explaining the latest journal news in accessible terms to covering the often contentious legal issues of the field. I didn’t realize just what a rock star Paul is in the field until I was at the World Stem Cell Summit in Florida, though. He really is that guy who is always surrounded by people who just want to say hello so that they can say they’ve said hello to him. I consider myself really lucky to have such an influential person telling me you know, I should keep writing, I say interesting things.

This in and of itself – being accepted by science-y types on Twitter, talking to really interesting and fun people without feeling self-conscious – would have made the year amazing. None of this, though – talking to any of the people already mentioned, or the numerous other interesting and intelligent and engaging science and ethics and research types that I do talk with on a near-daily basis – would have been possible if not for one person: Carl Elliott.

Back in February, a tiff erupted on Twitter and in the blogging/reporting sphere; against my better judgement, I made a few snippy comments. Those snippy comments got attention, and in particular the attention of Carl.

It took a few weeks before I was comfortable talking to Carl – my innate reaction to bioethicists, perhaps understandably (all things considered), was “run, run, and don’t look back” – but eventually I caved, and I’m glad I did. Carl has spent endless hours encouraging me to write, explore ideas, pursue school if it’s what I want, and generally been supportive with no reason or cause other than apparently feeling like it. …this was a pretty powerful thing for me; it was a gesture of kindness and good-heartedness I desperately needed. And without that, none of the rest would have happened. And the rest has been pretty awesome.

Talking to Carl led me to Leigh Turner; if you’re reading this at all, you likely are familiar with Leigh’s really excellent and thorough coverage of unregulated stem cell treatments, which has clearly influenced a lot of what I spent the year writing about. More than that, though, Leigh helped me get over a bit of the imposter syndrome that threatened to upend me in the fall, when I found myself wondering why in the world anyone would find anything I had to say interesting, let alone a valuable contribution.

The encouragement to keep engaging also led me to another person who has had a major impact on me in 2012: Alice Dreger. I’ve admired Alice’s work for years, from afar, as one does. I wrote about fetal dex in the late summer, which got her attention; we started talking, too, and suddenly there’s another “bioethics is something I do not who I am” musketeer encouraging me to the sort of glorious trouble I once aspired to.

And because of these three people in specific – Carl, Leigh and Alice – I started writing more frequently. Writing that got me the attention of The Guardian, who picked up a blog post and published it in Comment is Free. Writing that’s gotten me nods for some of the best blogging on stem cells in 2012. I had the chance to travel to new places; I actually met up with Leigh and Alice a few times; I had the chance to meet Francoise Baylis and other ethicists; I’ve met and talked to reporters both as a colleague and a source; I ended up at the World Stem Cell Summit where I met and hung out with other fabulous people like Paul Knoepfler, Doug Sipp and Amy Price.

And, as much as the references are people and travel, that’s not the point, so much as it’s one of a series of tumbling events that stack and re-enforce each other, and what I’ve learned, not only about my skill as a writer or my ability to think and offer meaningful contributions, but about self-confidence and identity.

Importantly, causally, it really does all trace back, for me, to Carl. Without that original – and persistent – outreach, I wouldn’t have had the self-confidence to continue the joking I was involved in, which led to talking to Leigh and others. I wouldn’t have started writing, in part because I was so alternatingly irritated and outraged. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to jump into a conversation with Michele and Bora about ethics and citizen scientists and research, I wouldn’t have been strong-armed into making a great decision about submitting a topic abstract, I wouldn’t have met Alice or Judy or Paul. I wouldn’t have gone to Halifax or Florida, I wouldn’t have shrugged and taken so many of the risks that I did.

Without this confidence, I wouldn’t have listened to Catie and begun talking to the final person who has had such an incredible impact on my 2012: Nick Evans. I wouldn’t have said hello, sure let me see your dissertation, oh you have GOT to be kidding me I am editing this for you; everything that has happened since wouldn’t have.

I suppose it’s the nature of reflection to think about the effect of butterfly wings, and it’s the nature of being argumentative and contrarian to say that I shouldn’t downplay being prepared and taking the opportunities offered. But I’m not entirely sure I can emphasize just how much that first step – whether you want to see it as support or a push – was necessary.

This post aside, I’m not really one for a lot of mushy public sentiment. But the last few weeks have underscored the idea that we often don’t tell people how important they are, what they’ve done is, to us until we’re sick or dying, or in too many cases, never.

A lot of things managed to almost completely break me down in the years between 2006 and 2009, to the point that by 2010 I didn’t recognize myself any more. And in this last year, so much has happened to turn my life upside down and inside out, and yet, coming out of the end of it, I find that I finally look in the mirror and I recognize myself once more – something that, whether you want to call it blame or credit, can directly be traced back to the actions of one kind, meddlesome muckraker.

Thanks for pointing out the path, Carl. I suspect a lot of people will blame you for future chaos – but at least it will be fun.

One comment

  1. I see what you mean when you tweeted that trying to write this brought tears to your eyes. It brought tears to mine just reading it.

    You are so clearly a superb writer. I’m so glad you got that push.

Comments are closed.