Doing Something for the Love of It


            I met Rachel Fairbank at Auburn’s 2020 Succeed Conference, where she was a panelist who spoke about the diverse career paths one can take within STEM. Well, technically, we exchanged greetings before the conference as I was driving a golf cart to pick up another panelist from the Auburn Hotel, but I digress. At the conference, I watched her speak on how her degree in Biology from Cornell shaped the way she approaches her career as a writer. I also had the opportunity to briefly speak with her individually during a round-table session where we discussed topics related to journalism, from ethical science writing to tips on what to cut when editing. Before we returned to the Hotel to discuss her personal story, I and the other attendees got a good idea of her professional identity, but I wanted to learn more about the unique path that brought her to Auburn this chilly February day.

            Rachel Fairbank grew up as the youngest of seven children on a farm in upstate New York, specifically in a small town called Dryden. It is important to note that Dryden is a place of interest for a few reasons. First, it lies adjacent to Ivy League institution Cornell University and the smaller, private Ithaca College. As such, Mrs. Fairbank grew up in a community filled with the children of academics and the children of blue-collar workers and farmers. Second, and markedly less pleasantly, Dryden is sometimes called the Village of the Damned due to a string of deaths that occurred there from 1989 to 1999. Despite the macabre moniker of her hometown, Mrs. Fairbank had a pleasant upbringing, and before even graduating from high school, she had entered the world of science. Growing up in the backyard of such a prestigious university, she had the opportunity to work in a genetics lab at the age of 16. “That was hugely influential in learning what ‘science’ means and learning to think like a scientist,” she said about her early scientific exposure. Unsurprisingly, she sees this time spent in a lab as very important in steering her towards college. As mentioned prior, she attended Cornell University and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Biology.

            About her college experience she told me, “Cornell was the first place in my life where I could be unabashedly geeky and unabashedly ambitious.” Having grown up in a relatively conservative family in an overall conservative community, it took her breaking out of this bubble to be able to “ask questions, think big and dream big,” as she put it. Overall, she used the word, "fantastic." After attaining her first higher-education degree, she soon began a PhD program in Developmental Biology at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. “I thought I would do the ‘traditional’ route,” she said about her decision to pursue a doctoral degree. By traditional route, she means the process by which someone first earns a Bachelor’s degree, then Master’s, then PhD, gets a postdoctoral fellowship and finally pursues a tenure-track faculty position at a University. However, during her second year in this program, she began to have doubts about whether or not she wanted to commit her life to research and the world of academia. Despite these doubts, sometimes it takes something bigger, something like an ontologically awakening experience, to change someone’s mind about their entire career path.




            “Basically, I was hit by a car walking to school,” Mrs. Fairbank said, “literally wrong place, wrong time. He hit three people.” Thus, just such an experience was thrown upon her, and during her recovery period, her life changed. She wondered if she was on the right track, if what she was doing was going to truly bring her joy, fulfillment and meaning. “There was a lot about research that did bring me joy,” she stated, “I loved the learning aspect, I loved hearing the stories of science.” Moreover, she came from a strong academic lineage. She told me about how her boss at Cornell completed her postdoctoral fellowship in the lab of Dr. Andy Fire, as he was in the process of discovering RNA interference. This discovery would win Dr. Fire and a colleague the 2006 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology. However, as anyone who has ever been a part of conducting research will tell you, there’s a lot more to research than hearing the stories of science and winning awards. “I was not very good at benchwork… and that’s being kind,” she began, laughing. “When it came to actually sitting down, doing that pipetting, running PCRs… I was a bumbling fool,” she finished, laughing once again. These aspects, sometimes also called grunt work by those tasked to complete it, are integral to conducting research. After all, without first getting the data and then statistically analyzing it, what teeth does the study have to draw any conclusions? Benchwork can be seen as a labor of love by some, but if one doesn’t find meaning in these often-repetitive tasks, it can be hard to cultivate a love for the long and arduous process. About her career path, she mentioned, “there are things I hated about [research], there were things that I loved about it. How can I find a profession that can let me do more of the things that I love and less of the things that I didn’t?” For her, it was about discovering the environment that would allow her to play to her strengths and, quite importantly, derive joy and meaning from the process.

            It turns out, she wouldn’t even have to leave Houston to find this environment, though there would be a few more steps in the process than she originally intended. “So, I took some writing classes in my undergrad,” she started, “and I enjoyed them. Intellectually, I knew that science writing was an option, but I didn’t think that it would be for me.” She explained that the reasoning behind her trepidation about pursuing writing was that it didn’t feel safe to her. She had grown up poor. When you’ve lived that sort of life and know the difficulties that come along with it, it is understandable for one’s focus to be strongly geared toward never having to go back there again. “I was always afraid of doing the science writing because I didn’t think it would be financially viable,” she remarked. However, with the support of her spouse and the larger safety net that having a partner could provide, she reached the point of, “okay, I’m going to go for it.”

            In preparation, Mrs. Fairbank decided to take writing workshops during her recovery as she applied to graduate programs in writing. “I did get rejected from UH [the University of Houston] my first time applying,” she told me with a chuckle. However, that first rejection allowed her to pursue other avenues of learning and growth in the time between application rounds. Specifically, she taught high school for a year, which was a unique space that allowed for her development in the realm of translating science for a non-scientific audience. “Nothing gets the point across that you’re not doing a good job as the sight of thirty very-confused high schoolers just staring at you!” However painfully awkward it can be, immediate feedback is very useful, after all. With this experience and a more developed portfolio, including publications in Salon, Vice Magazine and the Houston Chronicle, she was accepted into the University of Houston’s MFA program in nonfiction writing the next time she applied.


The Benefits of Being an Outsider


            As luck would have it, Mrs. Fairbank would be the final student to graduate from the program to which she was admitted. Indeed, the University of Houston MFA in nonfiction writing was eliminated while she was still earning her degree. As such, she took fiction writing workshops, which taught her more about crafting a story than did her nonfiction workshops, though she did struggle a bit in them. In these environments, she felt like an outsider, especially so considering that she came from such a staunchly scientific background and was expected to write short fiction. However, as she put it, “writing is a very eclectic profession,” and she found it valuable to connect with fellow outsiders. For her, this experience allowed her to expand the horizons of her writing. This was particularly useful because having a background in a natural science allowed her to understand the technicalities and jargon of the scientists that she wrote about, but on the other hand, her background sometimes made it more difficult to elucidate the intricacies of this work in a way that is understandable to the layperson. This program, specifically some of those fiction workshops and her peers she met therein, helped her to craft stories that told the whole truth of science but could also speak to someone who doesn’t know the significance of a p value being less than .05.

            Concurrent with beginning her MFA program, she also began working as a staff science writer for the University of Houston. In this position, she could focus solely on the interviewing and writing aspects of being a writer. “With a staff job, certain things are taken care of for you,” she told me, “you have your assignments. You have your regular paycheck. You’re working for an institution, you have your benefits… but I shifted to freelance because I wanted to take more risks.” Now, she is the sole proprietor of Hox Science Writing, LLC, still located in Houston. Running a one-woman-business leads to greater responsibility for seeking out work, negotiating rates, billing and many other aspects that one wouldn’t necessarily consider when working as a staff writer, but it also leads to greater freedom in pursuing stories that interest her. “For me, that was why I made the switch to freelance.”



Rachel Fairbank


            In addition to her passion for science, Mrs. Fairbank has a passion for both running and boxing. About these, she said, “Mental health-wise, I have to stay active.” Regarding the former, she acknowledges she is not a particularly fast runner, which she wrote about in a Houston Chronicle article titled The Joy of Slooooow Running. Not expecting to win any races, she runs to stay healthy, and frankly, because she enjoys it. “It’s okay to do something just for the love of it,” she told me, something she said the teenaged version of her would’ve benefited from knowing. She continued that, more than just doing something for the love of it, “it’s okay to do something badly.” Considering the latter activity, she asserted that boxing can push you in ways nothing has before. She told me, “When you enter the ring, when that opponent comes at you, the way that you react says a lot about who you are.” She then regaled me with the story of her first amateur fight, wherein each round was one minute long. Within the first fifteen seconds of the opening bell, Mrs. Fairbank’s opponent hit her so hard that her protective headgear was thrown off her head. Perhaps needless to say, but that’s not supposed to happen. “Getting up and going back into that second round was one of the hardest things I’ve done,” she said, “but I did it. And I learned that I could do it.” This story functions as something of an allegory of what seems to be a defining characteristic of hers: Determination. Be it taking some serious hits in that first round, but coming back for the second; getting rejected from the University of Houston MFA program, but going back and applying again; or beginning a PhD program, but finding another path that better plays to her strengths. She shows that getting it right the first time isn’t what is important. Rather, finding your niche, whatever that may look like, and being authentically you is what really matters.

            When I asked her about advice she would give to students, her answer didn’t surprise me. “Don’t be afraid to explore,” she said without hesitation. “Don’t be afraid to try out things that you don’t necessarily know where they are headed because, sometimes, the results can surprise you.” She also told me that it’s important to have thick skin and be stubborn. You’ll get rejected, you’ll fail, but that’s just part of living. It’s not personal, though it can definitely feel like it at times. To return to her combat sport of choice, rejection and failure are like boxing. When you’re squared up against your opponent and take a punch to the nose, oh, it hurts all right, and it sure feels personal in the moment, but it’s not. Indeed, it’s important to not internalize or ruminate on that rejection or failure, but rather recognize it as a moment of failure and then get ready for the next step in the process. If someone else was in the ring, they would’ve been punched just as hard as were you. The same dogged determination that got her to come back for a second round in that fight is what helped her begin her career as a writer, even though it took more than one application. In a similar vein, she is a person who left a PhD program early and still found success. It shows a different type of determination to leave a career path that feels “safe,” a type of determination that is focused on the self, on actualizing one’s potential in a personally meaningful way. “There’s no shame in leaving something that isn’t working,” she said.

            She’s proven that last statement to be true.








By Matt Gonzales


I'd like to thank Rachel Fairbank for sitting for an interview with me.