The Mentorship Spot
Arts or Science?
Updated: Jul 30, 2020
Written By Hadeel Nasser
Hi! My name is Hadeel Iraq and I’m a fourth-year international student studying Biological Sciences, with a focus on Nutrition and Nutraceuticals, at the University of Guelph. Four years prior, I was going to major in either Geography, English Literature, Linguistics, Psychology or Art Studio. At the same time, I was also thinking of going to medical school, or studying chemistry or forensics. Now, I know they say it’s normal to be indecisive when choosing a major for university, but as you can see, I was all over the place.
I was raised by a writer who has never-ending information in the historic and artistic sides of the spectrum, and a psychologist whose mind was carved from the scientific side of the spectrum. So, it was inevitable that I was influenced by the constant, varying, daily amount of information surrounding me.
My passion for English began around Grade 7, when my incredible teacher, Mrs. Grunder, had first ignited the fire with her dedicated and enthusiastic ways. Everything meant something else; the study of Linguistics and English Literature quickly became the study of human psychology and evolution, history, politics… just life. Every lesson with her felt like an exclusive, must-see Ted Talk. I would leave her class with a new pair of glasses and with a mind full of new ideas. That feeling, being touched by knowledge, is something I have experienced rarely in my educational journey.
The second time I felt that was in my first year, when I took philosophy as an elective. My professor — Karen Houle — was incredible; she was the perfect hippie, eccentric, crazy philosopher energy and everyone loved it. She was the only professor I had in my undergrad who never used PowerPoint presentations; her methods were far more unorthodox. In her lectures, I again learned about life, everything that makes us human and our interaction with the living and non-living world around us. I learned to think differently and question everything, while accepting all answers.
One of the reasons I’m passionate about these subjects is that I do well in them and I’m often praised for my performance, which makes sense since we’re more likely to enjoy something we’re actually good at!
What drew me into the sciences was the limitless sense of discovery that accompanies it. I like following structures as it keeps me sane to accept facts and theorems, for we wouldn’t get far if we kept constantly questioning everything. I believe in the phrase that ‘Knowledge is Power’, and I wanted the power to change the world, and I saw science as the primary means — why would anybody ignore the facts?
What made you decide to choose a scientific career?
I always wanted to do my bit and change or fix the world, and I felt like a strong background and understanding of science was necessary for that. Besides, I did enjoy learning science, mostly everything that was human-related, and less of the abstract physics and mathematics.
When I was in school, I absolutely loved ‘lab’ time. All the experiments and the ‘crazy, cool, science stuff’ made me excited and passionate about learning. I often did extra research on any assignments I had and felt amazing discussing it with my teachers.
I thought my passion for chemistry would continue to university, but it was destroyed fairly quickly, and by the aspect that I most liked — labs. I don’t know if it was the nature of how the university went about it in first year that dampened everything for me, or just personal reflection and realization of my changing interests, but I then hated labs. I didn’t enjoy experiments and that feeling carried throughout.
My rapidly decreasing interest in labs, and the like, had led to my first, of many, identity crisis — how can I have a successful scientific career if I hate one of the core aspects of it?
Thus began my journey; I switched my major twice and contemplated switching paths entirely multiple times. I wanted to change the world, and I thought stating the facts was the way to go — spoiler alert — not quite.
Have you regretted going into science at any time? If so, why did you continue and are you happy with this decision now, especially being in your fourth year?
Yes, multiple times, especially when I wouldn’t do well or became demotivated. I continued for many reasons: I felt it was too late to start over, my family would’ve whooped my ass, and honestly, I didn’t want to start over.
One of the reasons I was reconsidering the sciences was because I didn’t know what I liked and it was worse when I wasn’t performing well either. Luckily, I found my calling in 3rd year — Nutrition and Nutraceuticals — and I became happy with deciding to stay. I fell in love with the science of nutrition and supplements, and since it has always been a hot topic, I felt being well educated in it could allow me to make a real impact in the world, at least on my family and friends.
How have you continued your involvement in the arts in university?
It started with my electives, which were always arts: philosophy, psychology, etc. There was one semester where I couldn’t take an elective, so it was all science courses. I did not do well academically or mentally… it was so draining!
One of my hobbies is writing, and I had the pleasure to have written for the school newspaper — The Ontarion — once, and then I couldn’t keep going to meetings since they were at the same time as my classes.
There’s a place I visit regularly on campus called The Bullring — Guelph’s central hippie, artsy, location — and every Wednesday night is open mic night. I performed once (I play bass), but I usually just go to support my friends and enjoy the atmosphere. I have attended almost all the art, music, spoken word, etc. events and shows that are held on campus. Literally everything. Most of my friends are in Arts, and so I’m always very well informed of events here and there.
My biggest involvement, however, has to be joining the improv club in second year, where I stayed until I graduated. I even made it on the ensemble team in my last year! Improv was such a freeing and creative outlet that truly helped me reboot every week. All the junk stored in my brain would just be released. Moreso, learning to accept prompts and have fun was always a great mental health boost!
How do you reconcile your identity as someone with a strong arts background with your desire to study science as a profession?
To be honest, I don’t know yet. It has definitely been a struggle all my life; when I expressed intention to pursue art, I wasn’t as heavily supported as with the sciences — even from my own teachers! The societal stigma around pursuing a career in the arts was very strong where I grew up, and it was hard not to be influenced. Then again, I loved reading and learning about the sciences.
When asked questions relating to my identity, when I was younger (10–15yrs), the answers were from the science realm; I wanted to be a scientist or an inventor or something. But the older I got, I found myself expressing my identity by my hobbies, which were artistic in nature.
I thought I would never succeed with such a split passion, because if I learned anything, it’s that to achieve maximum gains, you have to focus your energy on one thing. So no, I couldn’t be the next Meryl Streep AND Elon Musk, I had to pick one to be the best at, and accept mediocrity for the other.
Perhaps part of the reason I can’t choose is because I’m afraid. What if I pick a side and I’m not as good as I thought I would be? What if the one I pick is not the one that was meant for me? Like I mentioned, I have a strong desire, to give back and help the Earth’s nature and people, and I know it will break me if I focus all my energy in one area, and not succeed at fulfilling my goal.
This year, one of my nutrition professors (and officially my favorite throughout my undergraduate journey) — Dr. Bettger — put out a few reflection assignments that we had to complete and later discuss with him. In one of my reflections, I talked about my ‘unfortunate tendency to be drawn towards the arts’. This is what sparked my first ever conversation around embracing my artistic side and using it to my advantage.
My professor scolded me for my self-sabotaging view of my passion towards the arts, and explained how having interests towards the arts does not make you a shitty science person by default. Most of this was in my head; if you think you’re going to be a shitty science person then you will be a shitty science person.
He continued to say how those with a creative passion may even perform better in the sciences due to their more flexible and adaptable attitude. He wished more scientists would be involved in the arts, because they would be more human and less robotic. They would be able to communicate more effectively and build relationships easier. Art was the magical lubricant needed for science and all of its extensions to work properly and be magnified to enlighten and reach more people than just researchers. Art is the bridge that will allow cohesion and innovation to fully advance and expand. However, that does not mean I will have it easy either. I might need to exercise more discipline and structure in my scientific work as it tends to be loose. I might need to spend more time learning concepts in different ways, such as by visual aid or story-telling, to be fully engaged and be able to understand.
This was the reassurance and comfort that I needed so early in my life, which I know others are craving too.
This is where I come in, this is where I am having the conversation with you. I know it’s weird to be both, but fighting it will just lead to constipated emotions and suppression of your full potential, wherever it lies.
Do you have any final tips directed to someone who isn’t looking to give up their passion(s) but is interested in a career in a much different field?
First of all, never give up anything you’re passionate about because you’ll slowly become miserable. This is not just from my experience, this is what countless great people have preached. It’s okay to try different fields and areas to see what you like, sometimes, it’s the only way to even find your true passion. I’m still searching.
I was very lucky this year to be able to attend Bill Nye’s exclusive Q and A at the University of Guelph. One of the top questions asked by students was: ‘Arts or Science?’
Both. He said, we need both. And he went on a beautiful rant that helped, at least for that moment, bring together those at both ends of the spectrum. It was similar to what my professor had said, which is when humanity works with science, we create something beautiful that everyone can understand and be part of. But, when one spectrum decides to jargon its way into unbendable boxes and stigmatizes the other side, that’s what will set us backwards. The only way to move forward, he said, is to fully conjoin and work with the arts and sciences to create beauty on earth and within us. And to that I say, re-fucking-tweet.
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