What do you want to be? If you asked me that question when I was growing up, I always had some variation of the same answer: I wanted to be a scientist. At first, it was a pharmacologist who would discover drugs to cure cancer. Then I wanted to be a forensic scientist uncovering clues to solve a crime. After that, it was a chemist. Regardless of the field, I never wanted to be anything other than a scientist.
When I was a kid, people told me that you were either good at math and science or reading and writing. Those that were good at math and science could become scientists, and those that weren’t could not. For me, math did not come easily. I remember the fear I felt when we were quizzed on our times tables because I didn’t know them. It secretly took me years to learn. Writing, on the other hand, came to me effortlessly.
I started honors English courses in the 3rd grade and got my only 5 on an AP test in English. If scientists had to be good at math and science, not reading and writing, what was I supposed to do if I was good at science and writing? This was the first time I questioned whether I really could become a scientist.
Near the end of high school, I started to seriously consider where to go to college and what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. There I was, barely 18, making choices about forever. And as most 18-year-olds do, I looked to others to help me figure it all out. I was still interested in forensic science, so I began looking into colleges with forensics programs. Immediately, I was told that forensic science was not for women. It was “too dirty”, “too gross”, “too much”. At 18, I didn’t know how biased science was against women, so I believed them. Instead, I refocused on my interests in chemistry and drug development. I was always the sick kid growing up, and watching my mom beat cancer sparked a deep passion for finding a cure.
I applied to every college but one as a chemistry major. The one exception, the University of Texas at Dallas, happened to have a neuroscience program. I knew nothing about neuroscience at the time, but I figured the brain must be interesting enough if they had a whole major for it. I was accepted into a special internship program the summer before my freshman year of college, so off I went to Texas in 2014 to become a neuroscientist. At the time, I had no idea how pivotal this choice would be to my career.
For ten weeks in 2014, I conducted research in a chronic pain lab working with animal models. It was truly the first time I understood what it meant to be a scientist. I had dreamed of it my entire life with absolutely no idea of what it actually entailed. I was surprised, though not disappointed, to find out it was nothing like what I saw on TV. But the experience affirmed that I was right. I wanted to be a scientist.
That summer was an important part of my story aside from the research experience because it was the first time I was evaluated for bipolar disorder. I am the third generation in my family to have bipolar disorder, so the possibility I could have it was on my mind long before I actually showed signs. But it wasn’t just the diagnosis itself that made that summer important. It was the uphill battle I faced learning how to manage it that changed my life. I was 18 years old in a brandnew state living on my own for the very first time with a mental illness that I had no idea how to cope with.
If you’re not familiar with bipolar disorder, it’s a mood disorder characterized by oscillating mood swings that peak at depression and mania. Imagine a pendulum that is always in motion but moves back and forth gradually, over the course of days or weeks or months between each point. That’s what bipolar disorder is like, despite the misconceptions that the mood swings are instantaneous. These are not fleeting feelings of happiness and sadness. These are chronic feelings of emptiness, hopelessness, anger, euphoria. You can likely imagine how difficult it might be to balance this constant shift in how you think, act, and feel while being a freshman in college and living on your own.
I struggled. More than that, I was drowning. In medications and side effects, in tests and studying, in becoming an adult and the person I was meant to be. So, I asked for help. I told a very prominent, well-respected professor of neuroscience that I was a freshman and bipolar and drowning, and he told me that I was making an excuse. An excuse for being a bad student, for being overly dramatic, for making up an illness that he didn’t believe in. And for the second time, I wondered if I would ever be a scientist.
My time in college was full of moments like that. Moments when people told me I was making an excuse, when people believed the stereotypes of bipolar disorder rather than me. When I started considering graduate school during my junior year, someone told me that I would never make it as a scientist. I was too dumb and too bad at math. Through all of this, though, I never questioned my desire to be a scientist. I questioned and doubted and, at times, wholeheartedly believed that I couldn’t be a scientist, but I never once wanted to be anything else.
There is a happy ending to this story, though. Despite my bad grades and bad math skills, there were people who took a chance on me. During my sophomore year, I did an internship in a neuropathology lab at another institute, where I learned that there was a name (and an entire field of research) for my interest in disease. I held a human brain for the first time and actually saw disease under a microscope. I figured out the type of scientist I wanted to be and had people who believed in me enough to write me letters of recommendation for graduate school. Then I found more people who believed in me enough to let me into the pathology master’s program at The University of Iowa, where I graduated two years later in the middle of a global pandemic, with four publications to my name. I found people who believed in me enough that I started a PhD at Iowa after my master’s, which I hope to finish this year.
Today, I am an award-winning scientist. I’ve presented my research at some of the largest gatherings of scientists in my field. I’ve started an Instagram account to talk about my work and have reached over 2 million people with my content. I’ve even shared my struggles with bipolar disorder with thousands of students through podcasts, articles, presentations, and more. I will never forget the people who told me what wasn’t possible for me, and I have learned that their opinions don’t define what I’m capable of achieving: I do. So, if you’re out there reading this and wondering if someone believes in you enough to do what you’re dreaming of…I do. My story is one of adversity and hardship and beauty and triumph, and there is a happy ending. I believe in a happy ending for your story, too.
Kimberly Fiock (she/her) is an Experimental Pathology PhD candidate at The University of Iowa. She has a BS in Neuroscience and Psychology from the University of Texas at Dallas and recently completed her MS in Pathology from The University of Iowa. Kimberly uses human stem cells and donated brain tissue to answer questions about neurodegenerative diseases. Her work aims to understand how one protein causes multiple, distinct diseases and how the differences in each disease can be used to create targeted therapeutics. In addition to her research, Kimberly assists with the Iowa NeuroBank Core, a brain tissue and stem cell repository at the University of Iowa. When she’s not in the lab, Kimberly spends her time doing outreach in the community and on social media to educate her followers about the field of neuropathology. You can connect with her on Instagram, Twitter, or TikTok at @thepathphd.