Dear Montecito: Stella Pierce

By Stella Haffner   |   August 27, 2020

Dear Montecito,

Hello, it’s Stella, your friendly, neighborhood column manager. This week I am sharing snippets from my academic (and not-so-academic life) in St Andrews. I’ve never participated in New Year’s resolutions. Indeed, true to my inner nerd, my annual clock has always been set to the academic calendar. As such, my year begins in September, and so does my annual reflection on the year I’m leaving behind. I bring to you: Tales from the Kingdom of Fife.

The first rule of a morning fire drill in the UK: be dressed accordingly

I wish to start with a short but powerful – as far as my ego is concerned – anecdote about how I received a mediocre grade on a psychology essay. I must concede that I agree with the marker, it was not a particularly impressive essay; it was made during the transition to online-learning, and I wrote the majority of the piece on an international flight. (Thank you for considering my side, I will make no further excuses.) The kicker is not the grade itself, which I am not particularly unsatisfied with, but instead the rationale the marker gave. To quote my professor: “Your argument fell apart, but you appear to write well.” Story of my life!

Listen up kids, this is an important lesson. Life is less about substance than appearance. Look like you belong, and you will find no questioning gazes. At least that is what I told myself as I took a small, unauthorized tour of the university chemistry labs, using my biology lab coat to handicap any suspicious onlookers. I would gladly relive that adventure, but I fear a public forum such as this journal is not an ideal place to admit one’s transgressions, academically impassioned though they may be. So instead, I shall regale you with a story of one of my less insightful academic blunders.

First semester, second year saw a bold attempt on my part to distance myself from my past as an English major and fully embrace my new role as a scholar of neuroscience. Aptly, a close friend and I got lost en route to our inaugural lab for the course “molecular biology” and arrived just in time to miss the introduction to the day’s experiment. No worries! I was certain we could figure it out as we went. After all, we were working with an exciting chemical today: fluorescein.

It took my lab partner, Anne, and I very little time to catch up to the rest of the class, deftly preparing our assays as if we hadn’t missed anything at all. It took Anne even less time to graze the substance vial with her elbow, knocking it over and spilling it across our workspace in the process. Once again, not a problem! We were practiced problem solvers – this was no obstacle. We knew fluorescein wasn’t toxic because we didn’t have to sign any legal paperwork upon entrance to the lab, so we made our covert cleanup efforts and continued our pipette work. A few minutes later, the lab demonstrators turned off the overhead lights and began to walk around our laboratory holding black light sticks.

Had we been present for the introduction to today’s experiment (or, indeed, said the word fluorescein out loud) we might have realized that fluorescein glows neon yellow under black light. Meaning Anne and my workbench were decorated like a coital crime scene under the glaring judgment of the demonstrator’s black light wand. 

Now that I am comfortable in the knowledge that I have shaken your confidence in my competence as a university student, I offer up one final anecdote. A keynote point for my hypothetical defense attorney, I am sure. 

I am a fervent believer in learning outside of the classroom – do you find this shocking? And a robust distaste for hypocrisy has made sure I follow my own credence. Welcome to the Baby Bee Lab. My university has a well-respected developmental psychology department – the study of “womb to tomb” as we say in the biz. I decided it would be advantageous to spend time volunteering in that lab and, hopefully, gain some research experience along the way. As an entry-level research assistant, my time was spent occupying young children and dispensing stickers as often as analyzing statistics. One of my favorite assignments was the one that taught me why I’ll never go into education: teaching elementary students complex theories about human evolution. It was rewarding, but children are sticky, and my maternal instinct caps at 11 months of age. I did, however, meet my current research partner and close friend on one such assignment. Let me introduce you to one of Denmark’s finest exports, Kaja

The Fire Drill

As winter break came to an end in our sophomore year, Kaja and I decided to take a mini vacation with our remaining days of academic freedom. The destination: the University of Cambridge. The plan: sneak into as many psychology lectures as possible. I know it wouldn’t be everyone’s first pick for their time off, but Kaja and I were in absolute heaven. Staying with a mutual friend at a nearby dormitory, we attended lectures on the evolution of social cues, criminal psychology, how humans encode language, and – my favorite –diagnostics in autism. Save for one lecture we missed after getting lost in a dinosaur museum, the entire trip went without a hitch! That was until the fire alarm went off.

Universities in the UK take fire drills very seriously. In most places, it is mandatory that dorms perform a fire drill at least twice a term. So most co-eds were at least somewhat accustomed to the shrieking buzz that woke an entire building at 5:35 am on January 20. Kaja and I were in that building, rubbing the sleep from our eyes, preparing to file out into the courtyard as we were used to doing during our own university’s fire drills. There was only one problem: Kaja and I were, technically, contraband. Rules stated we were not allowed to stay as a visitor in the dorms for more than three days – this was our fourth day. Our brains slowly faded out of their sleepy autopilot as we laced up our boots and realized we would have to wait behind the courtyard until the fire drill was finished and roll call had been completed. 

So that’s how Kaja and I found ourselves strolling the back lawns of King’s College at sunrise. Amidst the morning air and the dew collecting on our trouser cuffs, we chose our vacation spot for next term: University of Oxford. 

So there you have it. We are better acquainted than we were at the beginning of this piece, and I hope that we both learned that embarrassments and burdens of the past and present do not set the precedent for the future. The editor sitting on my shoulder like a cartoon angel is begging me to find a way to connect this to the pandemic. Let’s see… Our world looks ever more fatalistic, but there is always light at the end of the tunnel. Just, for Pete’s sake, don’t walk towards it.




You might also be interested in...