Monday, July 8, 2013

Em Maier: Off-Roading Her Path in Life

Em Maier is not a frozen-chicken-nuggets-and-french-fries kind of girl. On the other end, she does not consider herself a real chef either. But she does consider herself an Iron Chef imitator and fearlessly follows her curiosity wherever it takes her, just like the best and most innovative culinary artists.

Last spring her college roommates found this out when they opened the freezer and found not the typical college fare of frozen processed meat, but a dead rabbit. Em was going to cook it.

“I didn’t really know what to do with it, so I was just staring at it for 15 minutes with a pair of kitchen shears,” Em said.

She eventually figured it out and she can confirm that the rabbit dish was delicious.

Of all the odd things one might find in a college student’s freezer, a dead rabbit usually is not one of them. Em, however, has no qualms about venturing off the beaten path of college life.

She grew up in Arlington, Virginia, and attended nearby Thomas Jefferson High School, known for its emphasis on science and technology education. As a science lover, she fit right in and was prepared to stroll confidently into the world of neuroscience and psychology. Her chosen majors lay in the typical path of her high school friends; however, the University of Pittsburgh was nowhere on the path she envisioned taking. After a visit to the school her senior year, it still had no place on her path.

“I hated it,” Em said. “It was the antithesis of everything I wanted in a college. It wasn’t small, it wasn’t an enclosed campus. It wasn’t like all the other schools I applied to.”

Em received a full-ride scholarship to the school of her nightmares, and that decided it. She would take the chance. Luckily, Pittsburgh has a renowned science program, the one aspect of the school that was familiar and resonated with her.

Eventually Em’s dislike for Pittsburgh turned into a love, and she realized the beaten path was not for her anyway. She began to try new things like cooking, to which she dedicated herself completely. In order to learn how to cook eggs any style without taking a gamble as to whether they would turn out right, she cooked a different egg dish every day for a week.

Em also found her niche in the science world. A self-proclaimed spider scientist, she’s part of a research lab that studies color evolution in spiders, one of her favorite research projects yet. But despite her passion for science, she was burned out by sophomore year.

Cue divergent path No. 2.

Em discussed her feelings with a trusted neuroscience professor who noted her love for reading and writing. With some pushing, he convinced her to talk to a journalism professor he knew at Pittsburgh.

“It was probably in the five minutes of talking to this woman I fell in love with the idea, and I realized this was what I wanted to do,” Em said.

Em didn’t want to give up science, but she started writing for The Pitt News and taking journalism classes in addition to neuroscience and psychology classes. Rather than switching between science and journalism, Em found a way to do both. As an intern with Inc. this summer, she’s had the opportunity to do a lot of writing and has chosen stories focused on science and tech. Her science background gives her a greater understanding of those topics and her writing know-how makes it accessible.

“I think you can make anything exciting, and that’s what I like to do,” Em said. “I like explaining the how and the why.”

Cindy Skrzycki, one of Em’s journalism professors, has noticed the science influence in Em’s approach to journalism. Not only does she like explaining the how and the why, but she also puts in a lot more research than other students. Skrzycki said she can see Em in a career in science or science writing, but she wouldn’t be surprised if she ended up at a publication like The New Yorker.

Em’s friends were shocked when she suddenly shifted her focus to journalism, but those who know her best are not as surprised. Her mother is a librarian and her father a lawyer, and both of them studied history in college. She grew up with a book always in hand and couldn’t imagine living in any other way.

“Reading was sort of like breathing,” Em said. “It would just be weird not having a book . . . not having something to pick up and read throughout the day, so I think the potential was always there. I just didn’t know that was something I could do.”

Rita Patel, Em’s friend of five years, wasn’t too surprised with her shift in interest either. Rita and Em started a dystopian book club two years ago for science and tech students at Pittsburgh, so she was familiar with Em’s literary side.

“It was surprising, but at the same time it wasn’t because she was always interested in the wider scope of things beyond science,” Patel said.

With a diverse range of interests and skills, nobody – not even Em – knows exactly where she’ll end up next. She has an array of options to choose from.

She’s considering applying to graduate schools for science writing.

Medical school is still an afterthought.

She still enjoys cooking and dystopian novels, but perhaps not for a career.

She may take after one of her favorite journalists, Mary Roach, a talented writer who also understands science and writes about it.

It’s likely Em will never follow one set path, instead taking one road at a time and enjoying the journey.

“It’s interesting because most of my friends are not writers or literary people,” Em said. “So they say, well, what do you do with it? And I say, I don’t know, but we’ll see how it goes.”

By Colleen Connolly, DePaul University, Smithsonian
Edited by Sara Gentzler, Creighton University, Parents 

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