Of Mice and STEM, There and Back Again

August and the FogWritten by August Delforge, CSU STEM VISTA 2014-15

In John Steinbeck’s classic novella “of Mice and Men1,” two strikingly different friends and migrant workers, George Milton and Lennie Small, roam the country side of central California in search of new work opportunities during the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  The two  complement each other by bringing different characteristics and skills to their partnership. Despite his surname, Lennie is a large man of great strength but limited mental capacity, while George is a smaller man and, although not formally educated, is an intelligent, quick-witted figure with goals and aspirations. By virtue of their juxtaposing traits, the two rely on each other for combined, mutual success. This story relates to my work on a daily basis, through recognizing other’s strengths and weaknesses along with my own, to the overall goal of the STEM VISTA program (cultivating more inclusion and diversity in the sciences), as well as a special geographical connection to the region where the story takes place.

I have been living in Monterey for almost six years now, and in that time I have gone through evolutions and transformations in my life as well as academic pursuits that I would not have expected coming into college.  In J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit2,” when asked if Gandalf could promise Bilbo that he would come back from his own adventure, Gandalf replied, “No. And if you do… you will not be the same.” There is a lesson to be learned from the utter certainty of that remark ‘you will not be the same.’ In our lives we go through stages of learning, of developing, of traveling from one certain viewpoint to another. It is part of our basic neurological systems to pick up on certain aspects of events or experiences that we go through and try to apply, sometimes unconsciously, to our overall viewpoint of worldly issues. This is called unconscious learning3 and it leaves us “not the same” as we once were.

I was recently reminded of this fact while brainstorming with a colleague of mine about how I could more effectively get students engaged in prepared for science internships. He reminded me that even though, not so long ago I was a science student looking for the same internship and research experiences as the students I am currently trying to help, I was now on the other side of the ball looking at my dilemma from a completely altered viewpoint. I was talking as though all the IMG_6634basic knowledge I had acquired with my new position regarding internships, should be as obvious to anyone and everyone. Looking back to when I was a student starting the search for my first scientific internship, I realized I was like a fish out of water not knowing which way to flop. Putting myself back into that mindset has helped me identify how to best assist the students I now serve. Simple things such as how to identify your career interests and consequently how to come up with strategic keywords that will generate optimum search results of relevant opportunities, I have been told have been one of the biggest helps to the students I have worked with.

My colleague then went on to further illustrate his point by reminding me of Wegner’s famous struggle4 to have his theory of continental drift accepted by the scientific community, and more specifically the geoscience community4. For those non-geonerds who are not aware: Alfred Wegner, who is now widely referred to as the founder (or at least the catalyst) of the Theory of Continental Drift, was an atmospheric physicist who worked his whole life to publish his theory of a once unified continent he would later refer to as Pangea. Because Wegner had no formal training as a geologist he was looked at as an outsider and not taken seriously for proposing such a monumental idea, yet it was precisely for that same reason, that he was able to conceive it! He was able to make connections between not only how the continents would it like puzzle pieces, but also why they shared similar flora, fauna, and paleo fossil histories.

It is with this anecdote that we can go full circle and connect these life lessons together (did someone just say circle of life? No). Firstly, we have George and Lennie, two halves to a whole, demonstrating how individual differences in characteristics can lead to mutual success and eventual progression. Well, maybe not so much for Lennie. This position was further connected to STEM by the trials and tribulations of Alfred Wegner, whose diversity in thinking ultimately lead to one of the most large-scale theories on our planet. Life and science are all about continual equilibriums. Theories and ideas always reach a static, steady-state equilibrium before being shaken-up and progressed into a fluid state of dynamic equilibrium. It is also important to respect the lessons of our elders (such as Gandalf) and remember that we are all dynamic systems going through different experiences and coming out with different outlooks. Progression derives exactly from competing ideas, thus it is necessary to understand your personal viewpoint, accept others’ viewpoints, and ultimately relate the two.


  1. Steinbeck, John.Of Mice and Men. New York: Penguin Group,1993 [print]
  2. Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. New York: Ballantine Books, 1973 [print]
  3. RA Dewey. 2014. Unconscious Learning. Psychology: An Introduction. http://www.intropsych.com/ch03_states/unconscious_learning.html
  4. F Lichtman, S Shattuck. 2015. Animated Life: Pangea. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/17/opinion/animated-life-pangaea.html?_r=0

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