I wanna be like Neil, or why I was crazy enough to get into grad school

When I grow up (in my career), I wanna be like Neil.

Not Neil Patrick Harris, the talented actor and star of How I Met Your Mother and Doctor Horrible’s Sing Along Blog. The other famous Neil:



Jump to minute 1:04 for a demonstration of his contagious passion with which he talks about science.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist, science communicator, author, director of the Hayden Planetarium of the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, god to Stephen Colbert, and (in the only justified use of Auto-Tune) featured star in the Symphony of Science:



During the last couple of weeks I’ve been meditating a lot and looking to recover the inspiration that led me to take the crazy plunge into grad school. This can be a draining experience and I’m still getting out of the valley of shit. I’m out, but still trying to get rid of some bad habits. There comes a moment you can feel lost, then combine that with the moment when you like your project the least, family (thousands of miles away) problems, medical issues (and the bills that come with them), a bad case of impostor syndrome, living in a conservative Midwest town as a liberal and atheist Latino, and other personal issues. But at least the end is in sight, just have to jump the annoying hoops the grad school makes you jump.

During this period I even got accused of plagiarism by a researcher! At least that person made the accusation over email, not in public. I’m grateful my advisor dealt with the situation, I wouldn’t have had much patience. It was infuriating to do the work that that person didn’t do, which showed that there was not a single piece of evidence to sustain the suspicion. I even doubted myself, what if I did plagiarize that researcher’s work without realizing it? After all, it was a mathematical calculation, what if I stole the idea behind it? But no, the way my method works was based on ideas I developed during my MS, I just couldn’t do it back then because I didn’t know enough to write code that could extract the data and calculate the index.

As part of this recovery process, I’ve spent some time seeking inspiration and trying to reconnect to what brought me to this career by watching the documentaries and reading the popular books of the naturalists and scientists that have inspired millions, including myself. People like, the one and only, Carl Sagan and others like Bill Nye, Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Sir David Attenborough. However, only deGrasse Tyson can claim to be the closest today to what Carl Sagan was. To cement his place as the worthy successor of Sagan, he is working in a new version of Cosmosto be released in 2014.

I’ve also reconnected with the podcasts and blogs of some of my favorite science communicators like Phil PlaitKiki Sanford, and Steven Novella.

I was inspired, intrigued, and in awe at what these scientists were finding of our world and Universe. I wanted to find out things as interesting as the results, hypotheses and theories they presented. Hawking and Mlodinow’s The Grand Design was exciting and intriguing at how incredibly complex and awesome beyond our imagination the Universe is. I regret not keeping up with math (I wasn’t a math wiz, but was quite good up to the last math course I took – Calculus I) and not being able to even try to understand the math that allows them to model both the the Big Bang and the building blocks of matter and energy, like the recent discovery of the Higgs Boson. I used to dream of working on something like the labs that run the spacecrafts Voyager 1 and 2 and their impressive exploration of our solar system when I saw the pictures they sent back. The landing of Curiosity, the most recent Mars rover, made me ecstatic when it was confirmed that it landed safely. As many kids, I also wanted to be a dinosaur hunter – just imagine the thrill and challenge of studying them.

In biology, I was intrigued by the complex behavior that animals exhibited, as well as their adaptations. During my career, I’ve had my share of observing some of these wonders:

  • endless rows of leaf-cutter ants
  • boas hanging from a tree branch in their hunt for bats
  • dolphins bow-riding
  • seeing a majestic humpback whale from the air
  • the first time I saw Saturn and its rings with a small refracting telescope from my backyard
  • seeing tiny frogs jump out of their eggs when I disturbed them
  • the unique plants and animals in elfin forests
  • seeing a primary tropical rainforest from above the canopy, the same perspective as the howling monkeys a couple of trees over

And many, many more.

This retrospective, for lack of a better word, helped me to realize that the major reason I got into science was these science documentaries. Puerto Rico suffers from a painful scarcity of museums and similar institutions. The place that passed itself as a natural history museum was nothing more than the taxidermy collection of American and African big game. In a tropical country, with dozens of different habitats, this was an insult. To make matters worse, medicine and engineering are the only career options that schools and society promotes in high school students with interest for science. I took the road to medicine, but changed when I started taking the concentration courses in biology. Many of my compatriots that went on to do research, walked this path too.

These last few weeks also let me to realize most scientists can cite one of these communicators as inspiration, but there are no Latin American scientist that has come even close. I don’t hold delusions that I’ll be that person, but I want to try to make it possible for someone in any way that I can. Women are also absent of these lists, although people like Kiki Sanford, Carolyn Porco, and Alice Roberts are helping to provide the needed push to fix this disparity.

This all has helped me to get a second breath and start a new round of interviews for my “Biología Boricua” (Puerto Rican biology) podcast. I’m also working on the format of a video podcast talking about the often misreported science news, also in Spanish.

I miss teaching and presenting talks, particularly back home. Unfortunately, is not clear if I’ll even have a chance to return and do that. All of this thanks to the grim state in which the major university system in Puerto Rico is in, thanks to the small-minded politicians and corrupt administrators. I’ve heard of a few people on the way to retirement, so there is hope. All these experiences should help me get back into that teaching state of mind.

I’m back into full working mode, with breaks here and there to rest and catch up with reading and some TV series I follow (I’m caught up with Doctor Who, but way behind with The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones).

As a last related note that touches on most of the outreach I do, it is frustrating to see how many people refuse to accept basic science because their ancient book or their preacher can’t survive science. These people use all the technology science provides but refuse to accept something as basic as evolution. And they are gaining ground. With every win they get, we will loose public’s interest in science, the only driver of public funding of basic research. It is no longer optional for us to stay in the ivory tower. No one else is going to protect science’s place in society.


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