Mold Juice, Staying Curious, and Why the Details Matter

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Photo credit: Nathan Meijer

I’m a huge audiobook buff and am regularly listening to multiple titles at any one time. I especially love historical non-fiction, specifically when the progression of scientific topics are written about through a biographical or narrative lens. One of the most interesting books I’ve listened to in the last couple of years…which was really long but oh so worth it….is The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddartha Mukherjee. There’s really nothing better, in my opinion, than when a great science writer can take a complicated topic like genetics and transform it into a fun and educating read that the general public can grasp.

Right now I’m listening to an audiobook by Bill Bryson, one of my all-time favorite writers, called The Body: A Guide for Occupants. I have a friend who insists Bill Bryson isn’t really a science writer, but I beg to differ and offer this book as proof. Either way, if you haven’t read any of his stuff, you are really missing out and I suggest you pause reading this blog post and go discover his writing. It is well worth your time.

While listening to The Body yesterday driving up to Chicago from Indianapolis, I learned a story from Bryson about the discovery of penicillin that I’d never heard before.  Of course, I’ve known for years that penicillin was the first antibiotic that was discovered, but I didn’t know the details of how that happened. (Either that or I had zoned out that particular day in biology class.) The best part of this discovery that helped change the face of medicine?  It was completely by accident! Here’s the story:

Fleming was working on antiseptic research in the 1920s with our good old bacterial friend staphylococcus. At one point, when he left on a two-week vacation, he inadvertently left a petri dish of staphylococcus cultures sitting on the lab bench instead of putting them in the incubator. Somehow….SOMEHOW….the temperature and humidity conditions were just right that year, and preparation of the culture had let an air-traveling Penicillium mold spore from somewhere around the lab settle into the dish….and when Fleming returned, he found that bacteria were dying where the mold was present.  Fleming called this Penicillium powerhouse “mold juice”, which I find hysterical.  He wasn’t able to figure out how to isolate this antibiotic in his own work, and it took the medical community a while to understand the immense breakthrough this discovery was.  But, eventually, two other scientists furthered the work on penicillin and were able to mass-produce it just in time for use in World War II.

Here’s a statement he made later in his life:

“When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I suppose that was exactly what I did.”

Takeaway? Sometimes the very best things in life happen by complete accident! But, they happen when we pay attention to the mundane, and when we pay attention to the details.

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As I am steadily marching through the last few months until my fortieth birthday, I have finally fully embraced the fact that I have some serious quirks.  So much of the weirdness about myself that I once tried to burn away in order to make myself more palatable to others….I say TO HELL WITH IT now. At my core, I’ll always be a little weird, cooky, and eccentric and I am OK with it. I find myself much more interesting to me this way.

Over the last few years, I’ve also noticed something about aging that I did not expect. (Or, maybe it’s not necessarily related to aging per se, but more to alot of great therapy and shadow work.) I’m becoming more intensely curious about life – about people, about quantum physics, about gene therapy, about the cosmos, about music…about everything. Even when life is busy and stressful, I wake up wondering what I’m going to learn about that day.  This is such an odd juxtaposition to how I woke up each morning for almost 2/3rds of my life…where I would groan to myself and be like, “Again?  I have to get up and do this again? When will it be over, already?!” It is an amazing feeling to actually WANT to get out of bed each morning when you’ve never been used to experiencing that.

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Our world has been changed time and again by accidental scientific discoveries.  Think about x rays – that medical imaging technique we use thousands of times each day in hospitals and clinics across the globe, used in everything from mammograms to the diagnosis of pneumonia and broken bones – discovered when physics professor Wilhelm Roentgen was putzing in his lab in 1895 trying to determine if cathode rays could pass through glass.

Or how about the saccharin sweetener found in products like Sweet ‘N Low….that ubiquitous sugar alternative found in grimy condiment holders in diners and eating establishments everywhere. Constantine Fahlberg was working in a lab at Johns Hopkins in 1879 and made the ill-advised but serendipitous decision to eat lunch without washing his hands first.  He had unknowingly spilled a chemical on his hands while working, which he later tasted while chowing down. That chemical was saccharin, and our fake sugar addictions owe him thanks.

Or the slinky…originally designed to be a support for delicate equipment on ships.

Or the microwave, first created in the 1940s….thank God they aren’t 750 pounds anymore.

Or LSD, again accidentally discovered by a scientist researching a fungus that grows on rye, once more as the result of poor handwashing hygiene. Whether or not LSD changed the world for the better is controversial, but it certainly had a significant impact on things.

Or…. a myriad of other discoveries made by people who were in the right place at the right time, who paid attention to details and took the time to investigate further.

*************************************************************************************I have this one big strong voice in my head that I’ve fought against most of my life.  It’s the one that daily torments me, telling me that I’m a quitter, that I’m good at starting but never finishing, that I have no follow-through. The annoying thing about these voices is that they usually get their start with a particular person in your life, a person you love and respect enough that you believe the stupid things they say to you at their not-so-great moments…and there is usually enough truth in what is being said that you internalize it and then generalize it across the entirety of your life.

I’m so painfully aware of the big things in life that I’ve quit.  I’ve usually had really good reasons for quitting various endeavors, but sometimes I have quit things simply because I did not have enough faith in myself. It’s a terrible cycle….you don’t have faith in yourself to succeed at things you try, so you quit, and then you feel shittier about yourself, and the cycle continues.  That cycle spins faster when you have those external voices talking to you, too, assuring you that you are indeed a quitter.

That being said, I also have grace-filled voices in my life who help me reframe all of these negative beliefs about myself.  What would it look like, Julie, they say, if you stopped labeling your ADHD as a disorder? What if your ability to start well is a strength, and the trick is to team up with people who aren’t great at starting but who are great at finishing?  Others remind me on my bad days how I keep getting up again and again, and never quit at life even though there were times in the past where it was all I wanted to do.

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I love talking to people who have done a billion different jobs in their lives, and those who have a wide range of hobbies.  They are some of the most interesting people. These are the kinds of patients I care for in the hospital that get me into the most trouble regarding time management because I want to sit and hear their stories and how they transitioned from one path to another and how all those paths created and changed them.

When I look back on my own life, I’m kind of amazed at some of the stuff I’ve gotten to do, places I’ve been privileged to travel, and the wicked awesome people I’ve met. Despite my struggle over the years with depression and anxiety (which finally lifted a few years ago), I’ve lived a very full life.

But, something that I am most in awe about is that so much of the randomness of the first three decades of my life…where there seemed to be so much disconnection, irrelevance, and moments of epic quitting things and jumping ship for new paths…is that there is suddenly a magical convergence of all of these things. Everything in my past mattered, and it was like I had to get tho this particular point in life to see that EVERYTHING BELONGS and if we are patient and pay attention, it will all come together.

I’m probably being a little obscure here, but that’s because recounting my entire life story in one little blog post would be overkill. But here’s a brief outline of what I”m trying to say:

Where I currently am….as a nurse pursuing an MSN in forensic nursing and building up a significant writing side hustle…all pretty much happened by accident, but totally as the result of me being curious both about myself and about the world.  Here and there over the years, I paid attention to important details; it was those details that made the difference, even though I didn’t know at the time how they would be important.

Here are a few of accidents that happened early on in my life that I paid attention to and extrapolated upon, in no particular order:

  1. I recognized my own brokenness and trauma…instead of ignoring it, I started digging in and learning about my inner self and why I was such a damned mess.
  2. I was interested in science, so did chemistry research throughout college. This gave me some random skills that are serving me well now. I then worked in what seemed to be fairly random science-related jobs post-college – like blood sugar meter test strip research, blood filtration research, and vegetable physiology research.
  3. I thought I would like working in healthcare, so I did overseas medical trips in underdeveloped countries where I got a glimpse of how much so much of the world lives.
  4. I like to write…so I kept trying to get braver and do more of it while actually marketing myself.
  5. My mom told me I could major in anything in college as long as it was chemistry, physics, biology, or engineering.  Hopefully not biology, and math would probably be acceptable. So, I went with biochemistry.
  6. I did weasel in a second major of missions; which helped provide me with a good foundational understanding of cross-cultural learning and sensitivity.  Anthropological and cultural studies never get boring.
  7. I had amazing people come into my life, all at the right times and for various reasons, through no credit of my own.  But to my credit, I’ve managed to not run all of them off.

These, and so many other details that seemed insignificant when they occurred contributed to the magic that is happening in my life right now. Where I am now happened because of so many little accidents, so many unintentional jaunts into new territory, simply out of my own curiosity after noticing something small but interesting.

What I also find interesting is that this magic wouldn’t be happening if I hadn’t done ALOT of quitting. So take that you dumbass persistent voice in my head!  If I had stayed the course on so many of my endeavors, I wonder if I would have had all these awesome life experiences that I have had? I can’t help but believe that if I hadn’t quit things and taken some major detours out of my familiar comfort zone, I would have remained alot more narrow-minded and self-centered.

Life isn’t over until it’s over. I’m so glad I know that now, and that I didn’t give up on it twenty years ago when I would lay in bed, miserable, for days on end. There is always time for new things to spring up out of everything that seems irrelevant, useless, or dead. It is just a matter of holding everything that happens, allowing them to be, and trusting that we live in a benevolent universe that will raise up new life out of dry bones.

Sacred accidents rise out of the mundane, like penicillin from mold in a petri dish. Recognizing them just takes curiosity and a willingness to look closely at the details most people would simply pass over without a second glance. However, hand-washing before eating meals will forever be a good practice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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