'Real Life' Author Brandon Taylor On Why He Left Science : Short Wave Brandon Taylor's story has a happy ending. Today he's a successful writer whose debut novel 'Real Life' received glowing reviews earlier this year. But his success only underscores what science lost when Brandon walked away from a graduate biochemistry program in 2016. He tells host Maddie Sofia why he left, and what he misses.

Read his essay in BuzzFeed, 'Working In Science Was A Brutal Education. That's Why I Left.'

Find and support your local public radio station at donate.npr.org/short.

Email the show at shortwave@npr.org.
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Science Is For Everyone. Until It's Not.

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Science Is For Everyone. Until It's Not.

Science Is For Everyone. Until It's Not.

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Hey. Real quick before the show - if you've been listening to SHORT WAVE these last few weeks, you know we're trying to bring you updates on the coronavirus pandemic as well as episodes that have absolutely nothing to do with that. It's a balance we're thinking about all the time. So if you value a show that gives you science news of all kinds, we could really use your help. If you can, go to donate.npr.org/short to find your local public radio station and donate. That link is in our episode notes. Any amount helps. It's the best way to support what we do.


SOFIA: You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Brandon Taylor was the kind of kid who kept a rock journal.

BRANDON TAYLOR: And I grew up on a farm, and so I would keep very detailed notes about my grandpa's, like, chickens that he was breeding.

SOFIA: I mean, if this kid wasn't destined for a career in science, I don't know who is.

TAYLOR: Some people go to college, and they're like, what is my major? I never wavered. The biggest change in my life was deciding that I would, instead of being a neurosurgeon, study neurochemistry. Like, that was, like...

SOFIA: Wild.

TAYLOR: ...The big change in my life.

SOFIA: You're wild.

TAYLOR: (Laughter) I know. I walked on the wild side there. And so, like, for me, my entire life, I thought I was going to be a scientist.

SOFIA: But today Brandon is not a scientist. He's a writer. His debut novel "Real Life" came out this year, and it was a big hit. It got written up in The New York Times, O Magazine. So it's safe to say things are going well for him. But Brandon says walking away from science was like walking away from religion.

TAYLOR: Science is this incredible, like, amazing way of knowing the world and knowing the universe and knowing meaning. And in some ways, it's akin to faith in that way. And it's also incredibly painful and fraught and difficult, and so it is also akin to faith in way. Leaving science is - was for me - like, it was akin to burning down my life and trying to find a new worldview because that is the thing that I built my entire life around. I didn't experience a single moment of doubt.

SOFIA: Looking around the world right now, it's never been more important to have all kinds of good people in science, and that's why we should listen to stories like Brandon's. So today in the show, how years of being made to feel like he didn't belong forced Brandon to make the tough choice to leave science and why that's not just a loss for Brandon but for science itself. I'm Maddie Sofia, and this is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

So Brandon Taylor wrote about why he left science in an essay for Buzzfeed. It's a story that starts at the University of Wisconsin Madison, where he went to study biochemistry.

TAYLOR: I got there in 2013. And I think from - I mean, from right away, it was, like, an unhealthy situation.

SOFIA: Brandon was in his early 20s, a gay man. And out of 90 or so students in his graduate program, he was the only black person.

TAYLOR: I was staying with three undergraduate boys, and one of them kept using racial slurs with his best white friends in this, like, very casual way.

SOFIA: Oh, my God.

TAYLOR: But then I also would be walking home at night, and the white boys on the sidewalks would also say the N-word. And they would, like, push at me and say racialized things.

SOFIA: So, OK, that was in town. Science was supposed to be a refuge from all of that, but it wasn't.

TAYLOR: You know, in my first couple of years, I was really vocal about the racism that I was experiencing in that city. And my lab mates would say things like, you know, you're living downtown. Maybe you should move further out, where there are more black people. Or my thesis advisor was like, maybe you should just not work at night. Have you thought about not working...


TAYLOR: ...At night?

SOFIA: Brandon says that that same thesis advisor did eventually help him get into a different housing situation. But after a few years, the cost of all of this really started to weigh on him.

TAYLOR: One example that I can think of quite clearly was I had a professor who told my thesis advisor that I wasn't coming to every class session and that I hadn't reached out for additional class support. I was having a really difficult time with protein structure. And what was really galling about that was that I had just come from that professor's office, where I'd been there for, like, 20, 30 minutes going over one problem because I wanted to do really well in this class. And so my advisor was just, you know, berating me for not going and seeking help. And I was like, I was just at her office. And it turned out that she had conflated me with another brown student in the cohort.


TAYLOR: And it's that moment where my advisor didn't have my back.

SOFIA: All these moments added up to a feeling like he just did not belong. And this is a place, like so many colleges and universities, that talked a lot about diversity and inclusion.

TAYLOR: And so I think it's one thing in these progressive spaces for people to extend their arms and say, you're welcome. But it's quite a different reality when that welcome only extends so far.

SOFIA: And, I mean, there are people that talk about the importance of bringing your entire identity to a thing - right? - about not leaving parts of yourself behind and how that can kind of inform, you know, your work as a scientist or any other occupation. But that can be, like, really difficult or dangerous, too.

TAYLOR: Yeah, and I think that that is a common refrain I hear. It's like, you're free to be your full authentic self here. But then when you do show up to the table as a queer black person from a working-class family in the American South, then suddenly, they don't want you to talk about certain things because it disrupts the environment.

And there were other moments when I'd just be having conversations with lab mates about what to do with technologies like CRISPR.

SOFIA: Yeah.

TAYLOR: And I'd say, you know, I think it's really important that when we have conferences about this sort of thing, we should maybe think about how race and class are intersecting here. And they're - and they'd be like, well, it's science. What does race and class have to do...

SOFIA: Yeah.

TAYLOR: ...With science?


TAYLOR: And that seems like a really kind of, you know, silly, maybe throwaway anecdote. But it's young scientists - like, the future leaders of...

SOFIA: Sure.

TAYLOR: ...You know, modern science being really blase about the intersection of class and race and able-bodiedness with science, you know?

SOFIA: Right, right. Well, can you tell me - there was this one section that I found particularly devastating, in which you said, (reading) science was the constant humiliation of wondering if I had justified my presence or if I had made it harder for the next black person to get admitted. Science was having to worry about that in the first place.

I cannot imagine the pressure of feeling like you're representing a group of people more than yourself.

TAYLOR: Yeah. So at my - in my graduate program, there were about 90-ish students, and I was the only black person in all five or six years of it. And it just felt like everyone's eyes were on me because I was also the first black student in quite a while.

SOFIA: Yeah.

TAYLOR: And I also felt like I had a tremendous responsibility because I would look around at all my professors, and I'd think, there are no black people here. Someone should do something about that. And then I'd realized, oh, I am the thing that someone is doing about there being no black professors. They're trying to, like, fill this hole and this space with me. And so if I leave, there will be no one to fill it. And so I have to stay to keep the door open for other black people. And I felt that if I stayed, I could talk to these people and to get them to bring more black people here. And maybe if there's a black person who'd visit on a, you know, interview weekend and they see that, you know, there's another black person here, maybe they'll want to come. And it will be great. And then we can support each other, you know?

And so I - you know, I began to be preoccupied with, like, what white people saw when they looked at me. And I wasn't just trying to do my best for myself but so that I would make it easier for the next person after me. Like, I didn't want to make it harder...

SOFIA: Yeah.

TAYLOR: ...By being a disappointment because - you know, it sounds irrational, but the thing about racism is that it is irrational. And so, like, I didn't want to give anyone who was already perhaps a little racist, like, any reason not to give another black person a chance. And so there was this whole, like, double consciousness thing going on.

SOFIA: Yeah. You know, it just - graduate school was hard, right? It was so hard. And it was hard enough when you made a mistake to think about disappointing yourself and your family and just not being the best person there. And to have to carry all of the rest of that on top of that - I just cannot imagine how difficult that was and what it took to stay there for so long.

TAYLOR: Yeah. I mean, graduate school is, like, relentless. Like, graduate school does not care about your feelings. Like, graduate school is, like, a meat grinder, really, to the feelings and your self-value.

SOFIA: Yeah, like, weirdly on purpose maybe. I don't know.

TAYLOR: I mean, it does seem intentional. And so it is incredibly hard because you're having to learn how to think in new ways. You're having to learn how to be this whole other kind of person. But then add it to this whole, like - am I a bad example? You know, am I letting people down? And then a series of things happened that just, like, brought it all to a head. And I was just like, I can't be here anymore. And so I think it was - 2016 is the year I decided I was maybe going to leave. And I applied to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and I was accepted that following spring - so, like, you know, March 2017. And that - then I had a real kind of literal choice to make whether to stay or go.

SOFIA: So in an alternate universe where you did not leave science, what's the difference? What would have made you stay or feel comfortable that you could stay?

TAYLOR: I think the thing that would have allowed me to stay would have been feeling supported and being treated like I actually belonged there and not these kind of superficial liberal platitudes that are - that science is full of.

SOFIA: Yeah.

TAYLOR: I think feeling embraced and really, truly supported on, like, a deep institutional level would have made it easier. I think when it just came time - when it just came down to it, part of what I felt I could survive about leaving science was that I just would no longer feel like I didn't belong in the space and that I wasn't having to fight tooth and nail just to prove to people that I belonged.

SOFIA: Yeah. So what would you say is the thing that you miss the most about, you know, practicing science? I would argue that once you're trained in science, you're always a scientist. But what's the thing that you miss doing the most?

TAYLOR: I mean, this is maybe very niche, but I really miss doing immunohistochemistry.

SOFIA: I mean, don't we all?

TAYLOR: I just miss that and confocal microscopy the most - I mean, just looking at slide after slide of germ lines in the microscope room and nobody can bother you because you're working. That just - yeah, I really miss the microscopy maybe the most.

SOFIA: Right. But, like, what about it do you miss specifically? Like, what is the element of that that you miss?

TAYLOR: You know, I think it's - I think there's something so beautiful about being at your microscope and just looking at something for hours and hours and hours and trying to see something that no one else has seen before or trying to see something novel in things that, yes, other people have looked at but no one has, like, seen this one particular thing in it. Yeah, I think it's that. I think it's just the satisfaction of getting an answer even though...

SOFIA: Sure.

TAYLOR: ...You don't know what the answer is or how it fits into a larger picture - just like the world is kind of answering you back in some way.

SOFIA: Wow, that's really nice.

TAYLOR: I think that's the thing I miss most - just, like, the world answering back.


SOFIA: Brandon Taylor. His debut novel is called "Real Life." If you read it after listening to this episode, some elements of it will be familiar to you. He wrote about why he left science in a piece for BuzzFeed called "Working In Science Was A Brutal Education. That's Why I Left." There's a link to that in our episode notes.

This episode was produced by Brent Baughman, edited by Viet Le and fact-checked by Emily Vaughn. I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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