I love adventures, don’t you? In fact, I love them so much that I am convinced that an adventure can happen anywhere and anytime. I am a world traveler, the silly shopper who throws items into the grocery cart the length of the aisle just to make my daughter laugh, I geocache and I jump in rain puddles…but sometimes the excitement of an unknown adventure turns into anxiety and fear. Like most people, I have had my fair share of anxiety about the unknown…starting graduate school, moving, becoming a parent, my first faculty position. However, stepping outside of your comfort zone and trying something new can often have fantastic results. In fact, physiology, the foundation of my professional adventures, is actually perfectly designed to help us achieve, when we place ourselves just outside of our comfort zone.
Upon completion of my postdoctoral fellowship, I found myself embarking on a series of new adventures…motherhood, moving and monetary-insufficiency. At this juncture, monetary-insufficiency demanded that I find a fount of funds and quickly, so I applied for a physiology teaching position at a brand-new, doors-opening-soon medical school. With so many non-professional challenges already on my plate, many asked why I would choose to start my career at a start-up institution. The answers are simple…the job was in my hometown, it moved me from unemployed to employed and I had the chance to build a program and my career simultaneously from the ground up. Building two sand castles at the same time was certainly pushing me over the edge of my comfort zone.
I decided immediately that I needed to make physiology interactive. I did not want to reinvent the wheel and instead felt I could tap into a fellow physiologist’s methods and have students answer real-time questions in class with colored-construction paper. My hope was that this interactive way of lecturing would benefit me as a new teacher and allow me to know when my students understood the lecture material and when they didn’t. I proposed my idea to a few of the basic scientists on faculty with me and was met with a lot of, “well, you can try that it you want to,” coupled with doubtful looks. Maybe I shouldn’t pursue this after all…I need everyone’s approval, right?
Without full support from senior faculty, I watched my comfort zone slipping away like the receding tide. But I am an adventure junkie, so steeled with my ever present resolve, I marched down the hall to my first lecture. I handed out four sheets of paper, red, blue, green and purple, to each entering student, admonished them not to lose the papers and dimmed the lights. The lecture started and up popped the first question. “Vote with confidence!” I cried after I had read the question stem. Hesitantly, hands were raised and an answer was given in the form of colored-construction paper. I explained why the answer the majority had given was correct and my comfort zone came slinking back towards me. After a few more questions, the comfort zone of the class slowly reentered the auditorium and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Our newest adventure no longer evoked feelings of anxiety and physiology became interactive in our school. Soon, thereafter other faculty wanted to poll students during lecture, I was commended for starting the movement and the school adopted an electronic audience response system. But now what?
Shortly after beginning my faculty position, I knew I wanted to engage K12 children in science and began participating in PhUn week. I started small, 25 students in one classroom. I felt comfortable with these students, managed by their teacher, while l was partially shielded by my fellow physiologists; but I knew that many more would push me to the edge of my comfort circle, where the waves of anxiety waited to lap over me. With each year of involvement, the number of participants and my comfort with them grew, expanding my comfort zone and forcing the waves out with the tide. I connected with a local first-grade teacher who invited me to work with her class and facilitate their discovery of the special senses and germ transmission. Then it happened…the wave crashed over me and I was rolling, tossing and being pulled down by the riptide. The upcoming project with one first-grade class had been expanded, “Please include all of the first-grade and the kindergarten classes too,” she said, “800 students in all.” 800! I can’t manage 800 students. Fearing I would disappoint the young scientists-in-the-making, I agreed. My comfort zone however, was on hiatus, minus an internet, telephone or even smoke signal connection. I started the plotting and planning, recruiting volunteers, creating a schedule for each of the classes, buying supplies and encountering sleepless nights of worry. The day of the Human Body Fair arrived, as did I, full of inward worry and outward energy. After two days, 800 students, 40 volunteers, 6 physiology stations and innumerable cups of coffee, my comfort zone telephoned and said, “See, I knew you could do this with just a little push.”
All of these adventures have created anxiety and fear and ultimately feelings of satisfaction. Sometimes I feel like my comfort zone took a trip to the beach without me, but it always comes back and I am always a better person for having let it take a vacation. Now, as I swim towards my next adventure, a life outside of traditional academia, I know that while I may submerge at times, my head will always bob back up above the water and ride the waves.
Jessica C Taylor is a physiologist, medical educator and adventure seeker. For the past six years she has served as a member of the physiology faculty at the William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine. Outside of the classroom she focuses on K12 outreach, presenting science to the general public and encouraging young women to pursue careers in science and healthcare. Her comfort zone is currently being washed out to sea as she leaves her current university in pursuit of other scientific arenas. Hopefully, she will be safely back in the zone soon.