Fanning the Spark
When I was in 1st grade, I thought dinosaurs were the best. The greatest of course was Triceratops, because of the beast’s striking, instantly recognizable features, and because it had “Sara” in its name (say it out loud). My mom showed me a book with beautiful pictures called Digging Up Tyrannosaurus Rex about the most complete T-Rex fossil ever found (incidentally, by my uncle’s sister in Montana) written by paleontologist Jack Horner. She told me that Dr. Horner had trouble in school because of a reading disability but he became a great scientist anyway. That was it; I wanted to be a paleontologist just like Dr. Horner.
In 2nd grade, I did a book report on the American astronaut Sally Ride. I learned that she was the first American woman to go to space, and I was captivated by the pictures of her with her long hair floating weightlessly like a mermaid underwater. She used the robot arm on the spacecraft to retrieve a satellite, which I thought would be very handy to remotely play with my friends on the playground while I was still in class. That was it; I wanted to be an astronaut just like Sally Ride.
Another book report in the 3rd grade brought to life Robert Ballard’s discovery of the German warship Bismarck. Dr. Ballard is best known for his discovery of the RMS Titanic, although he says that the lack of historical record and the nature of the shipwreck made the Bismarck much more difficult to locate. I read that Dr. Ballard’s tiny submarine, Alvin, fit 3 people in the space of a walk-in closet (I made two of my friends squeeze into a bathroom stall with me to experience this claustrophobia firsthand). I read that the pressure at 15,719 feet below sea level, where the Bismarck was found, was so immense that a styrofoam head would be crushed to the size of a shooter marble (I crushed a lot of styrofoam cups to see how much force it took). I read about how Dr. Ballard gathered evidence about the ship to recreate the battle that led to her sinking, and his observations supported the theory that the German crew had “scuttled” the ship, (a delightful word for an 8-year-old audience) intentionally sabotaging her inner compartments to sink the disabled ship faster and prevent her from being captured by the British navy. Most compellingly, Dr. Ballard had kept the Bismarck’s location a secret so that less scrupulous explorers couldn’t rob artifacts, preserving the shipwreck as a historical site. That sealed the deal: I was absolutely, positively going to be an oceanographer, just like Robert Ballard.
I actually stuck with my marine science enthusiasm for quite a long time, as these things go in the elementary-age demographic. Having to wait until age 12 to get SCUBA certified made my ambitions more difficult to maintain, and my interests drifted to a range of topics — music and the arts, then large animal veterinary medicine, then political speechwriting (that one is a little harder to explain, but I was really into it).
When I was in high school, my mom got really into running. I went to see her run the Women’s Only 5k on a beautiful, crisp October morning, and I was so impressed — there was my mom, lithe and powerful, with an awesome kick finish at the end! Something inspired me to requisition her steel hybrid bike that afternoon and I went out on my first real bike ride, a 4-mile loop near my house with a couple pretty good hills in it. When I got back, I had to lay on the living room floor with the ceiling fan blasting full-force for half an hour before I felt like I could walk. I was not a fit kid.
But the next day, darn it if I didn’t go ride that loop again. Twenty-five minutes to recover this time. Two weeks later, I had ridden every day and had gotten up to 20 miles in one shot! A month later, not knowing any better, I showed up at Paceline Bicycles on Saturday morning, 34-pound steel hybrid in hand, and rode 45 miles with some incredibly indulgent, sweet, helpful cyclists who took it upon themselves to make sure this strange kid on her wholly inappropriate bike didn’t become road kill out there.
My parents made what was, in retrospect, a slightly absurd leap of purchasing a $1200 Cannondale road bike for me for Christmas that year, and the shop let me ride it on the Saturday rides. Three months into cycling, and I was getting inexplicably fast. Chubby 16-year-olds typically do not keep up on 19-mph hilly shop rides, let alone start contesting sprints. This was a big deal for me — I had finally found my “why,” and at the same time a community of people who thought I was pretty cool for doing it.
I am not exaggerating when I say that cycling has changed my life in ways I never thought anything would. It led me to a career I love, deep and fulfilling friendships, a recreational outlet that feeds my soul and fuels my body, and a competitive activity that motivates me. My first date with my long-time boyfriend? A bike ride. It has become one of the most enriching parts of my life.
Earlier this week, I got to go back in time to visit 3rd-grader Sara when I attended a lecture by one of my aforementioned heroes, Dr. Robert Ballard. He is an extraordinary speaker, full of infectious vitality and passion. His vast knowledge from his prestigious career is almost overshadowed by his palpable sense of wonder and reverence for the thrill of discovery and the beauty of the world. Here he is in 2008 giving a talk at a TED conference:
Tell me that watching that didn’t make you want to drop everything and go be an oceanographer too!
After his talk, Dr. Ballard answered questions submitted from the audience beforehand. I really hope someone filmed this and it goes up on YouTube soon, but for now I’m going to try to remember it as best as I can. The moderator spoke, “This question comes from a Guilford alumna, Sara, who did a book report on your discovery of the Bismarck in 3rd grade. Presumably that went well for her and she finished her M.S. in a STEM field earlier this year.” Dr. Ballard gave a thumbs up. Swoon! “Sara asks what advice you have for young minds interested in science, and for the adults who want to encourage them.” Just when it couldn’t get any better, Dr. Ballard gave a beautiful, honest, heartfelt answer. An article in the Greensboro News & Record quoted him as saying, “Work with your kid. Don’t laugh at their passion. No passion is a bad passion. You just need to modify it sometimes.” He spoke of hard work and perseverance, what graduate students know all too well: you really have to want it; if it were easy, everybody would have a PhD. Most importantly, Dr. Ballard spoke about the importance of being supportive of children’s dreams — don’t dismiss them as unrealistic or unimportant or just plain weird, but share in their excitement and provide the support they need to chase their passion. Fan the spark just enough for the flame to ignite and come to life.
Whether or not we are parents, educators in the classroom or a less formal environment, or involved in the sciences and humanities, each of us has a real responsibility to usher in the next great generation of thinkers. We like to berate the kids of today for their “plugged in” attitudes, but the prevalence of technology and fluency in its use that “digital native” kids develop from an incredibly early age will be responsible for the next wave of innovation and advances. This is a big part of why I like working with youth and collegiate sports so much — committed, enthusiastic, hard-working young people engage with challenges in a very different, creative way. It is our responsibility to be open to those ideas and willing to entertain fresh thinking, rather than dismissing it as naive and supplanting it with the same kind of thinking that caused our problems in the first place. We live in a world that paradoxically judges the people who are “too into” their specific enthusiasm, but turns around and praise the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates people whose obsessive determination leads to outrageous wealth and advancement. We need to start redefining success; the first step, for me, is to embrace my passion.
Today, I’m about to get passionate about yard work. Go find your passion, and let me know how it goes!