I remember standing on the corner of a dirt road as a child of eight or nine. I was shielding my eyes from the blistering sun of a South Carolina summer and bouncing on my toes as I strained to hear the engine of the approaching book mobile. Likely I would have been clutching a worn copy of “Childhood’s End” by Arthur C. Clark and one or more hardcopies of the latest Nancy Drew mystery to my chest. I was almost certainly desperately hoping that Anne McCaffery’s “The Ship Who Sang” was back from whoever had reserved it so that I could read it again for the umpteenth time.
At that time all that mattered to me was a chance to read yet another wondrous alternate reality into which I could lose myself. Stories of far flung galaxies, black holes and star drives fed fantasies that I might someday create my own rocket to take me to Mars, the moons of Saturn or out into the Milky Way. At the same time, I longed to be a daredevil like Nancy Drew. I wanted to outsmart authority figures and beat the boys to the clues to solve the mystery first. It wasn’t long until my fascination with star drives and black holes, my obsession for sorting out clues and solving puzzles, blossomed into a bone-deep longing to be a scientist.
But I grew up while women’s lib was still in its infancy and so many were still quick to discourage me. Women, so most everyone said, weren’t smart enough to be scientists. A child of a functionally itinerant truck driver, we bounced between family in the south and in the north, often just one step ahead of bill collectors. In the parlance of the time we were labeled “poor white trash”, and I was constantly told that my kind would never amount to anything. At home, homework took a back seat to my cleaning my brother’s rooms, doing the dishes or a plentitude of other chores. Frankly, if I’d met society and familial expectations, I’d have quit school, married an abusive drunk, lived a brutal, angry life and raised my children to do the same.
I failed to meet their expectations.
I did, eventually, become a scientist. It took decades of work and of dealing with the burdensome baggage of self-doubt and misdirected shame. I was blessed to find a wonderful husband who embodied the definition of love, trust and respect, and together we trod the path to where I am today. And I don’t take credit for succeeding. What I’ve accomplished is largely due to unadulterated, deep-in-the-DNA, stubbornness. I don’t consider this something for me to take credit for any more than I might take credit for having blue eyes.
But I do want to give, at least in part, credit to authors and screenwriters who created worlds worth living in. Oh, they didn’t do this for me, specifically. I think it doubtful that any thought they were inciting societal rebellion and fueling far-above-her-station-dreams in the heart of a perpetually dirty-faced girl from nowhere. And, before we get too Pollyanna-ish, I will be among the first to acknowledge that bad role models far outnumber the good in literature as a whole. After all, authors write of the human condition and human nature is flawed. Nonetheless, intentional or not, the books that I read as a child dangled before me hope of a better life, one where even I—a “throw-away girl”—mattered. And to the authors who crafted those stories, thank you.
It’s perhaps not so surprising then that when I decided to heed the second great siren call of my life—to become a writer—I wanted not only to create new worlds but opportunities as well. To pay homage to the philosophy of “pay it forward”, I wanted to “write it forward.”
I am trying to do this by combining my two great loves: science and writing.
First, although much has greatly improved since I was a child, there are still many barriers that stand in the way of young women, minorities and the economically disadvantaged pursuing science careers. Many cultures and sub-cultures teach that boys are more mechanically inclined, more analytic and generally smarter than girls. While some cultures teach young boys that they sacrifice their masculinity by being too good at school. The sciences are held up as lame to middle school girls who are on the verge of self-realization, yet still long for acceptance. And even in the sciences themselves there is an unspoken but pervasive attitude that to be taken seriously by men, a woman has to act and even look, male. So while stereotypes are not as blatant as they once were, they are as limiting as they have ever been.
As such I’ve tried to recast the young woman scientist in my Madison McKenna mystery series. I’ve tried to create someone who is sassy and sexy, fun and cool. She’s as science-savvy as they come and is proud to be her own kind of nerd. She outsmarts authority figures and beats the boys to the clues. She’s not perfect. She has doubts and regrets. And she fails from time to time. But she keeps fighting. And I can only hope that this strong yet vulnerable, brilliant yet flawed, feminine and feisty protagonist will incite others to defy stereotypes just as she does.
In addition, I’m trying to use my writing platform to help women, minorities and the economically disadvantaged in a more practical sense. I am creating a small ($200/month) scholarship for high-school and college students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines. It will begin in May of 2016 and it will be advertised on my author’s website at http://kennedyquinn.com.
I don’t know how effective my limited efforts will be. But for all the little girls and boys, and all the big girls and boys, who find solace, excitement, wonder and mystery in books, I will keep doing my best to write it forward.
Kennedy Quinn has a Ph.D. in Physics and Master’s in Nuclear Science and is a director of research by day. But this scientist-turned-administrator didn’t get there the easy way. She enlisted in the Air Force immediately after high school and served as an aircraft mechanic before achieving an officer’s commission and earning her multiple degrees. After a diverse military career, she retired to federal service where she continues to lead research on a wide array of science and technologies. By night, she grows roses in Northern Virginia with her family; they’re owned by two rescue cats.