Becoming Fearless

being a fearless scientist

I recently gave a talk at BioToasters, the local ‘biotech-focused’ Toastmasters chapter (they’re great by the way). As I started to prepare, I realized that I was going to an organization devoted to public speaking, and that I haven’t had training in ages. I started to think about why I’m so comfortable with public speaking, and realized that a bad situation a long time ago had made me fearless. I started thinking in more general terms, and how learning to be more fearless can benefit us all.

OK, here’s the story. Ten years ago I was a postdoc and gave a talk at an international virology meeting on a college campus. Back then, we used removable slides in carousels (you can now laugh if you’re over 40, and think about the classic Mad Men episode if you’re a fan). The college student that was running the projector dropped, DROPPED, the carousel and put the slides back in random order, without telling anyone. The talk was scheduled for 10 minutes. There was no time to put my slides back in order. I made the best of it, lived to tell about it, and pretty much fearless to this day in front of a ‘live audience’ (I spoke to 400 scientists in Japan once, no sweat!).

In preparing my talk for BioToasters, I began to think of other good things that have come from my bad experiences. Yes, I have sat in the ‘your position has been eliminated’ chair before. More than once… The result? Comprendia. A fantastic network. The SDBN. The OCBN. I was a bit squirmy when watching the movie ‘Up in the Air’ because George Clooney’s job is to terminate employees when a company doesn’t have the stomach to do it themselves. However, his comments in the movie to the recently jobless are spot on: ‘Anybody who ever built an empire, or changed the world, sat where you are now.’

Why does it take an extreme event to make us fearless? I started to think about Randy Pausch, the professor who inspired us all with his ‘Last Lecture‘ which he gave knowing that he had terminal cancer. The lecture is about achieving your wide-eyed childhood goals and dreams (e.g., being an astronaut, working at Disneyland). What’s surprising about Randy’s lecture, however, is that he realized some of his dreams before he knew he had cancer. What may be even more surprising is that he incorporated the attainment of his dreams into his highly technical work in computer science. Do you ever think about your dream job in biotech, and how you could land it and realize some of your dreams?

Yes, this is a lofty, inspirational post. But let me just tell you, that being a small business owner is no picnic, but I have never been as happy as I am now, doing exactly what I feel that I was meant to do. Everything is easier when you’re doing what you love. The things you do mean more to yourself and others.

I don’t suggest quitting your job, but I suggest that you…ask that you…IMPLORE that you to look for an outlet to pursue your dreams. Go for that job in the other department you’ve been eyeing. Start a blog (my answer to everything ;). Connect with other professionals who can help you get something started (and stay tuned for more resources from us to help). Even if you only have time to be the expert on your dream topic, do it. As Louis Pasteur once said, ‘Chance favors only the prepared mind.’ Get out there and prepare yourself, even if you don’t know what it’s for, yet.

If you’d like to see (and hear!) my BioToasters talk, visit You’ll have to sit through the story about the dropped slides again though ;) Oh, and I’m not fearless enough to skydive…sorry if you feel cheated based on the picture…

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  1. Great post Mary. It is so true that momentary events that seem so bad (dropping the slide carousel, losing your job) can ultimately be a boon.

    If you’re considering your next move as Mary suggests, I can’t recommend enough reading Seth Godin’s newest book LinchPin. It is an eye opener and a life changer for this scientist.

  2. Hi Mary! Much belatedly thank you for coming to speak to BioToasters. We had a great turnout. Still hoping some will convert to new members! Let’s keep talking about getting a Toastmasters crossover with SDBN…

    Bernard Delacruz
    VP Public Relations

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