Weaving my wings
Updated: Apr 11, 2018
A few years ago, I was working at a science outreach day – meeting high school students to talk about scientific careers – when I said something that bemused the girls at my table.
“I work in environmental science, and in my spare time I write historical fiction.”
It was a straightforward description of my life. By day, I was a university research fellow and lecturer, using chemistry to investigate changes in past and present environments. And whenever I could find the time, I was head down in 17th and 19th century England, nursing, cajoling and occasionally dragging the drafts of two novels into existence.
I’m not unusual. Just among my friends and colleagues I can lay hands on writer-scientists, musician-scientists, dancer-scientists, artist-scientists…
To these girls, it was an odd and unimaginable combination. A bit more chat revealed that they nurtured hopes of similar futures, being a medic and a musician, or taking a science degree and going into politics. But somehow the education system had never told them it was possible. They genuinely believed they needed to compromise who they were to pursue science as a career. I came away from the event thoughtful and not a little sad.
This year my life flipped round. An opportunity came up to take a break from academia and I grabbed it. After a PhD and ten years in the university sector, I need to spend more time on other passions and ambitions, as well as managing my disability.
Plenty of people will tell you that stepping off the academic treadmill, let alone for something as insecure as writing, is risky and a waste. The risk, I grant. Financially, giving up a career to write is not the world’s best idea. I did it because I reached a natural break between contracts and was partly pushed by my health (I have EDS), which was hampering my juggling act.
However, the waste I disagree with. Everything I have been, everything I have done, I am. My PhD and research were complete experiences in themselves. Quite apart from their usefulness in winning the freelance writing gigs which now pay my share of the bills, they are key threads in the weave of my life.
My bio has reversed order – it now says writer before scientist – but both are still true. They always were and always will be, along with my love of wildlife, my addiction to northern European symphonic metal, and my tendency to hold conversations with rats. They are part of the colours that make life glisten, a life that wanders its own random pathway, and should never be shut in a neatly labelled box.
Thoughts? Come and chat on twitter @AphraPell
Title quote is from My Walden, on Nightwish's stunning Endless Forms Most Beautiful album