I had the incredible honor of attending the 2016 L’Oreal USA For Women In Science awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., where post-doctoral fellows, including Dr. Amy, were honored for their contributions to science and their community.
My name is Amy Orsborn. If there’s one theme to my life decisions, it’s to avoid them. I chose my college based on its reputation in both science and music, just in case. Once I settled that debate, I went with the broadest science major I could find. I applied to graduate programs in four different fields and specifically looked for one that let me delay selecting a thesis topic. You get the theme: choose the option that keeps the most doors open.
All to say, I find it hard to pinpoint the moment when I decided on my career. It happened when I wasn’t paying attention. I arrived at a destination, unsure how precisely I got here. Yet I now cannot imagine being anywhere else. My only explanation is that a deep, underlying, personal motivation nudged me along my series of non-decision decisions to the right place.
As a kid, I was a regular at doctors’ offices. A fluke of development left me with a smattering of abnormalities. Most are pretty benign. For example, I’m deaf in my right ear because I’m missing a cochlea. A defect in my spine caused a bit more trouble. My spine grew asymmetrically and curved with every inch I gained. I went to a hospital specializing in rare physical disabilities multiple times each year as doctors debated strategies. My X-ray collection is astonishing. I’m amazed that I don’t glow in the dark.
When I was eleven, the doctors intervened. I had surgery to fuse part of my spine. I lived in a mobile traction device called a “halo” for four months while the bone healed. Despite the name, there’s nothing angelic about metal screwed into your skull and a stiff, itchy vest. I am, however, now excellent at sleeping sitting up. It comes in handy on airplanes.
While my surgery and recovery was trying, I ultimately feel lucky. I was lucky compared to a fellow halo-wearer paralyzed by a spine fracture, or my hospital roommate with spine curvature so extreme she was bed-ridden. I have only a small portion of the challenges my hospital companions face. I gained a deep appreciation of movement and its critical role in our lives. I also gained a deep frustration with treatment options for people with physical disabilities.
You might think this is the origin story of a doctor. Somewhere along the way, I took another direction. Maybe medical school required too much commitment.
I am a neural engineer. I currently do research at New York University, studying how our brains learn to control our ungainly limbs so flexibly and effortlessly, and how we can make devices to restore movement to people with motor disabilities. While it’s tempting to impose a straight-line trajectory from the hospital to here, there have been a lot of wiggles in between I would be smoothing over. But there’s no doubt that my stack of X-rays and four months as an angry “angel” guided my wanderings.
This letter is to that unhappy eleven-year- old.
Life feels so unfair right now, I know. The looks and questions from kids on the playground were bad enough before. Now everyone stares. You’re uncomfortable in your own skin. You’re hurting, physically and emotionally. Unfortunately, this won’t end when the halo is off. Those scars will take years to heal.
This is a defining part of your life. But you might be surprised to learn that you will look back on this not in sadness, but in appreciation.
Right now all you’ve ever wanted was to be “normal,” even though you don’t know exactly what that means. You want to look like everyone else, to fit in. So you’ll bury this as best you can. The scar is always covered. Any mention of your neck is accompanied with a joke you make at your expense. You try to forget the doctors’ visits and the hospital.
But you will eventually move on to exciting new places where you shed these uncomfortable distortions. Every new step in life will help you root deeper into your skin. You will make friends with exceptional people and see that “normal” isn’t so worthwhile. You’ll start to embrace your peculiarities. You will continually reflect on this time in your life. You eventually realize how much it shapes how you view the world. You come to admire how much stronger it made you.
That strength is so important, Amy. Your stubbornness and ambition take you in interesting directions, but also mean you don’t naturally gravitate to the obvious, easy path. More than once, you’ll suddenly look around to realize you’re in completely unfamiliar territory. And there, you will encounter people who will make you feel as if you don’t belong—because of your gender; because people conflate physical and mental disabilities; because you’re taking a path no one else in your family has taken before. You will need this strength to know not to listen to them.
Blocking out the negativity is exhausting, though. So always surround yourself with people who will help muffle the noise. This is critical.
More than strength, this experience will give you a unique drive. It will give you a unique perspective. These are essential for channeling that ambition and stubbornness for a real purpose. You’ll stop simply striving for perfection for perfection’s sake, and instead focus on achieving a particular goal. You will always struggle with the search for perfection, though. Please try to relax a little bit. We are getting gray hairs.
I know unique is just about the last thing you want to be right now. But one day, you will be so happy with where you’ve come; so comfortable with who you’ve become. You will proudly bare your scars. Just, please, put sunscreen on them.
Your older, possibly wiser, self.