W.R. Grace was in the news last week. The Columbia-based specialty chemical company emerged from Chapter 11 after more than 12 years of bankruptcy protection, during which it dealt with a legacy of asbestos liabilities.
I was once a W.R. Grace employee. Back in my high school days, I spent part of a summer there doing agricultural research. Specifically, I was assigned to a project focusing on sugar cane. Grace wanted to figure out if it could make the plants produce more sugar.
My parents were excited about this job because it seemed to be the kind of work that might lead to a productive career. And I was interested, too; here was science I understood, and the job paid a lot better than minimum wage at the time.
During my orientation, I toured the W.R. Grace complex, where I met lab-coated scientists doing all kinds of fascinating experiments. At the end of the day, my mentor took me to my laboratory — a very large greenhouse.
Inside were rows and rows and rows of sugar cane plants.
My job? To water each plant daily. And not just splash them. No, no, this was science. Precision was required. I had to water each just so.
Did you know that it can get pretty hot inside a Maryland greenhouse in the middle of August? I worked alone, and by noon, I was spent, limp from the heat. More than once, my boss stopped by at lunch to find me napping, still holding a wilted sandwich mid-bite.
The highlight of my day was when the lab coats arrived, and I followed them from specimen to specimen, clutching a clipboard and recording measurements of how much the cane had grown. Usually, not so much.
Science can be slow.
I was thinking about that experience the other day, when the Northern Virginia Technology Council invited Linda Hudson, the outgoing chief executive of BAE Systems, to talk about the importance of inspiring students to pursue science, technology, engineering and math careers. Hudson talked about how many institutions of higher education go to great lengths to weed out underperformers when they should be trying to keep them in. A local business executive stood up and asked whether parents might share some of the blame for encouraging their children to follow their passion, instead of a profession with prospects.
I think that lets the kids off easy. My own summer flirtation with STEM lasted only a few weeks; I decided to follow my passion and spend the rest of the summer working a soccer camp.
My parents — dad mostly — thought I was crazy.