I Am One Of A Kind Essays

This is a re-post of Emily Bernhardt's essay "Being Kind" that was recently featured in Nature. The original essay, from September 2016, was lost in the recent transition to the new website. Dr. Bernhardt was the president of SFS in 2016. The original post is archived here.

There are two issues that I want to talk with you about in this first essay and I have been struggling to see how they are related. The first is that many of you have written to me over the last few months with your concerns about holding our 2017 meeting in NC in light of our state's decision to pass HB2 (the so called "bathroom law" that aims to treat transgender people as second class citizens). The second is that a couple of our members have reported unpleasant incidents in which a senior scientist said unpleasant or hurtful things to junior members at SFS meetings. A first time attendee ended their first poster presentation experience in tears after being vigorously criticized by a senior scientist. Several female student members were told by a senior scientist that they never hire women because they only get pregnant and drop out of science. I find the HB2 law abhorrent but not unexpected given the unfortunate tenor of politics in my home state, but I find the SFS incidents deplorable and shocking given the culture and objectives of SFS. Our society exists in order to promote great freshwater science and to recruit and retain great freshwater scientists in the discipline.

I am afraid I can do little to fight the political issue (other than vote and protest as an individual citizen) but I hope that as SFS president I can encourage all of us to work much harder to cultivate kindness in our interactions with one another. I was quite inspired by a quote making its way around the twitterverse recently in which a scientist shared a piece of advice they received when they started graduate school, "Everyone here is smart, distinguish yourself by being kind."

What great advice, and how illuminating to realize that indeed, kindness is not widely discussed or recognized as part of our evaluation of self or others. Imagine how different our day to day lives as scientists would be if everyone adopted this mantra of actively trying to be kind. Think of the way grant and paper reviews would be worded differently. Think of the ways the interactions between students and mentors might shift. Think of how we might each slightly change the way we invest our time. As I have repeatedly subjected myself to this thought exercise over the last several months I have come to believe that kindness is key to our longstanding success as a society and that more intentional kindness is crucial for accomplishing our goals of recruiting and retaining a much wider range of freshwater scientists.

I think of moments in my own career that were pivotal. There was the time when Nancy Grimm gently explained my incorrect understanding of nitrification and later the time when she wrote me a lovely note about my first submitted paper. There was the time Pat Mulholland wrote a multi-page email response to my naïve first year grad student question about nutrient releases that cleared up so many issues. There was the time that Josh Schimel sat with me on a bench and helped me brainstorm the puzzling results from a piece of my dissertation work. I could go on for quite a while, but the key component of each of these interactions was that each of these wonderful people were not only smart, they were kind and supportive in the way they shared their intelligence with me. They were not my advisors, they were under no obligation to invest any effort in helping me, but they each had a tremendous impact on my progress through graduate school.

I can think of counterexamples of course. I have been either very lucky or very oblivious and had few unpleasant face to face interactions with other scientists, but I have certainly been subjected to a plentiful helping of unkind remarks through anonymous peer reviews. Perhaps the authors of these remarks were making important intellectual contributions, but I cannot recall them because they were couched in such unkind terms. There have definitely been days (I can think of one in particular in which I had two papers harshly rejected in a single day) when I have given serious consideration to finding another career path. In almost every case that uncertainty about being a scientist has been in reaction to a criticism or harsh comment that felt more personal than professional. Recent reports and surveys would suggest that many budding scientists abandon careers in science because of this "culture of critique".

The many moments of kindness I have experienced in my career act as an essential counterbalance to the near constant barrage of criticism any professional scientist is subjected to. Because we do not talk about it very much and because they aren't documented on paper, I suspect I have failed to place as much value on those moments of kindness as I have on the written insults. I am working on changing this valuation problem. I think we should all be talking about and celebrating one another for our high impact moments of kindness.

In using the word kind I very explicitly do not intend the sometimes synonym nice. As intellectuals struggling to understand the world around us it is vital that we argue, that we hone our understanding through challenging our own views and the views of others. We cannot, and should not, always be nice while intellectually sparring. Yet we can spar while still being kind. We can disagree with a point while respecting the person making it. I hate to think how often I may have strayed across this line – so worked up about an intellectual difference of opinion that I forgot to be kind.

It is easy to convince yourself that we are scientists, that we are logical creatures whose professional interactions are (and should be) devoid of emotion. But of course, because we are scientists, we have to be aware that simply is not true. We each have personal experience of feeling sad or mad as the result of a professional interaction with another scientist. I suspect at one point or another each of us has been told we need to toughen up or have thicker skin to hold up in this career.

It is also appealing to imagine that we, as cold logicians, are able to separate our opinions about a person's ideas from our opinions about a person's appearance. But for most of us, that simply is not true. We can read the scientific evidence for ourselves that conclusively demonstrates evidence that we all act and make decisions that are affected by implicit bias. We know (because other scientists have studied us) that as a community we are more likely to hire the applicant and give the big grant money to the scientist with the Anglo male name. We would be wise to suspect that our opinion of a talk or a conversation is very much colored by what we know about the other person's age, race, gender or sexual orientation.

We can counteract this unfortunate, and shared, tendency to discount the opinions of people unlike ourselves by being kind to everyone that we encounter. When we have the opportunity to share scientific ideas with someone who looks or acts differently from ourselves, we should be especially intentional in our kindness. Recognizing that differences in the colors of our skin and the tenor and accents of our voices may be sending interfering signals, we should flex our empathy muscles in order to truly see one another's ideas.

So for the good of science and the scientists that make it happen let's all choose to rack up acts of intentional scientific kindness. Let's work on recognizing them when they happen and being grateful for them. I can think of no better goal for a scientific society than to make its members individually and cumulatively feel more accepted and happier in the work that we do. Let us resolve to do more intentionally what SFS is already famous for, be a warm, welcoming home for freshwater scientists that love what they do and love telling each other about it. I propose an unofficial and aspirational motto for our upcoming meeting "Everyone here is smart and kind".

Emily Bernhardt

Is there anything more intimidating than sitting in front a computer and saying to yourself, "Okay, I am now going to write an essay that is going to affect where I go to college and maybe the rest of my life"? Yikes!

Slow down -- let's get some perspective on this whole college essay business. Unless you really screw up, no single essay is going to get you in or out at a particular college.

College admission readers will be looking at a myriad of factors besides essays, including a)what kind of student you have been from your freshman year through the first semester of your senior year; b) your test scores (unless they are a test-optional school); c)the kinds of activities you have been involved with (honors and awards received); d) and what the school counselor and teachers have to say about you on the recommendation forms. They will also be aware of how you present the information: It must be neat, organized, accurate, up-to-date, flawless in terms of spelling, grammar, and punctuation and have absolutely no typos.

Having said that, doesn't it make sense for you to produce the best application essays you can? Doing that will increase the chances of your getting into the colleges to which you apply. What follows should help you get started on an essay, and also end up with one about which you will feel proud.


1. Set aside a block of time in a place that is free of distractions.

Over the years, I have discovered that there are many things I can do in fits and spurts -- clean up my office, talk to friends on my cell, read the news (online or hard copy), even work out. However, writing is not a good "fits and spurts" activity. The best way of approaching it is to block out a specific amount of time -- like one or two hours, perhaps more. Literally put it on your calendar! Then locate yourself in a quiet place that offers a good surface for your computer or writing pad. This might be a desk in your room, a kitchen table or the corner of your favorite coffee house or public library. Before you start the writing process, gather all of your supplies:

  • The college application that contains the essay questions
  • Your computer and/or writing pad
  • Pens or pencils
  • Notes with personal stories and anecdotes
  • Your activities resume (if you don't have one yet, a list of activities from grades 9 to 12)
  • And a glass or bottle of water (so you don't have to leave your space to get it later)

Now you're ready to go.

Oh yeah, one more thing: Announce to everyone nearby that you don't want to be disturbed and turn off your cell phone. It is tooooo easy to allow yourself to get distracted by anyone or anything in the middle of writing.

2. Identify the question you are going to answer

After you have yourself situated, the first thing you need to do is identify the essay prompt that you are going to answer. If you have never written an application essay or are starting a new application, it's a good idea to start with a short, rather than a long, essay. For example, the new Georgetown University application offers this prompt: "Short essay: In the space available discuss the significance to you of the school or summer activity in which you have been most involved."

Heads up! Just so you know, the Common Application and its essays, and some individual college supplement essays are now available.

3. Brainstorm ideas for a topic to answer the question, looking for a theme or subject that fits you.

There are many places where you can find ideas for an essay topic. Take a look at your activities resume and/or think about everything you have done since you were a freshman. A very important question to ask yourself is, "What do I want this college to know about me?" If this is your first essay-writing session, you might want to sit down with your parents or a trusted friend and brainstorm ideas about potential topics before you starting putting pen to paper. As you do this, don't forget to write down the ideas.

4. Choose a topic and answer the question.

From all that you generated in brainstorming, pick one idea or topic that you like. Then go back and highlight (or underline) all of the different parts of the essay prompt. For example, if you are answering the above Georgetown question, you will want to highlight these parts: a) The school or summer activity in which you have been most involved, and b) The significance to you. It is terribly important that you pay attention to each and every part of a question because admissions officers will be expecting that of you. Not doing this will likely disappoint the readers, something you don't want to do.

5. Once again, use brainstorming to get ideas for the essay question for which you now have a topic, and from there pick out the most important points. After that, write a first draft.

Once you have a topic, the next step is actually fun. Gather all the information you have about a topic -- pieces from your resume or activity list, personal stories and anecdotes, suggestions from family and friends and any ideas that pop into your head. Once again, write it all down. It's really important that you keep track of your ideas because it will be impossible to remember all of what you have thought about or said. You don't lose any of the good "stuff."

Once you have done this, write a first draft. What I don't mean is to do an outline and carefully carve out each sentence and paragraph. Just write your answer like you're telling a story to a friend or mentor. Don't worry about what you say, how you say it or whether it is grammatically or otherwise correct. Just get it down, let yourself go, get creative, be yourself, offer an anecdote, bring in a little humor, and try to have a good time!

6. Edit, edit, edit your draft

People who write for a living or love writing know that it's not just a one-time event. It involves producing a draft and then re-writing, adding and subtracting words, phrases, sentences, even whole paragraphs, moving ideas around, coming up with new things to say, and editing. Ask yourself:

  • Do I have an introduction, a theme, a development of that theme and then a wrap-up or conclusion?
  • Does what I have written make sense?
  • Does one thought lead to another? Have I offered transitions from one paragraph to another?
  • Are there extraneous words or sentences?
  • Is the essay detailed and specific?
  • After spell-checking, can I find any errors in the copy?
  • Have I answered the question and kept to the word or character count?
  • Is it well-written?

After you have edited your piece, give it to someone you trust for comments and their edits. Understandably, an editor who is a good writer -- a parent, teacher or counselor -- is probably going to have a better eye for the above questions. It's hard to be objective and have a true perspective about your own writing. When you get your essay back, then take or leave the suggestions you have been given.

Side note: One thing you should know is that college admissions officers not only want you to answer their questions, but they often look for something about what you have learned or gained from an activity, situation or even writing this particular essay.

7. Set your essay aside for a while and then give it one final proofread.

Save your final essay version somewhere you will remember and then copy or upload it onto the application.

Having written one short essay, you are now better prepared to take on longer ones.

Happy writing!

If you want more and detailed information about writing application essays, you can read Chapter 12 in my book adMISSION POSSIBLE®: The Dare to Be Yourself Guide for Getting into the Best Colleges for You or go to my adMISSION POSSIBLE® website.

PS: If you happened to have read my last blog, "6 Terrific Pieces of Advice for Writing College Application Essays," go back to see where I purposefully left a mistake. If you don't find it, go to the comment section where drumrobot points it out.

Follow Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/admissposs

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