One morning at breakfast, I was upside-down-reading an article in my dad’s newspaper about epilepsy specialists (“epileptoloog”, in Dutch). When I asked him what an epilepsy specialist was, for a few seconds my dad just stared at me in disbelief. Then, to the best of his knowledge, he told me it’s someone who knows all about brains. Four years old at the time, I was delighted by his answer and decided that, one day, I would grow up to be an epilepsy specialist.
Twenty years later, sitting at that same table, I announced that I had changed my mind. About to graduate in neuropsychology with excellent grades, I had decided to take a different path. I would become a violinmaker. Once again, my dad stared at me in disbelief.
My violin craze had started a few years earlier. I had longed to play the violin ever since I was a little girl, but my parents had managed to keep me happy playing keyboards and guitar. Age 21, no longer living at home, I got my first violin for Christmas: a shiny product of Chinese mass manufacturing. It squeaked and screeched, due to my no-show talent as much as to its modest origin, but I was the happiest person on earth. I played and played and played. My violin and I became inseparable.
A scientist at heart, I wanted more than anything to understand the violin. My trips to the violinmaker, Bas, became more and more frequent (he’s also very handsome, I have to admit). Bas invited me to join his weekend class for amateur violinmakers, and so I did. I was instantly hooked. Surrounded by a handful of passionate 60-year-olds, time simply disappeared. The atelier became a sacred space where I felt no need to eat or drink or stretch my legs; nothing on my mind except that tiny piece of wood slowly being transformed into a corner block or a center rib. I felt peace like I’d never felt before.
Surely, my dad was aware of my violinmaking adventures, but I doubt he had foreseen my rather drastic change of life plans. His silence to my announcement was deafening. My dads friend, who happened to be visiting and who’s opinion I greatly value, was outraged. I’d never seen him angry before, and never would I see him angry again. He said I was the smartest person he knew, and that I was betraying my intelligence and wasting my future. As he threw his hands in the air, I started crying. His agony, rooted in his genuine care for me, stuck with me for a long time.
Looking back, I realise that the choices leading me away from neuroscience were always made in crappy times. During my high-school years, dealing with the aftermath of abuse, I wanted nothing more than to get out of there as soon as I could. I chose the easiest of all tracks, studying languages instead of math, chemistry and biology. I finished early alright, but had to settle for a Bachelor’s in Psychology rather than Biomedical sciences. Shortly before my violinmaking craze, I had started experiencing symptoms PTSD, marking the beginning of another stressful phase. I desperately needed something to submerge myself in, something all-enveloping and soothing. Violinmaking just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
I’m now a neuroscientist, not a violinmaker. Here’s what happened. Despite my rudimentary understanding of math, I soon realised that I would need a lot of money to become a violinmaker. So much, I figured, that I’d better obtain a Master’s degree first, or I would never earn enough. For my first research internship, I landed in a group of extremely passionate and inspiring neuroscientists. And that’s it, really; I was back on track.
Maybe I’ll be a violinmaker one day. Who knows, I’ll probably get tired of science at some point. There are certainly days on which I think “I’d better start saving right now…”, but such thoughts tend to be short-lived ánd coincide with paper rejections or other sciency discomforts. I guess my four-year-old me was right after all.