Monday morning alarms aren’t known for being my favorite part of the day. Coupled with the unexpected and sad news of the death of David Bowie after an 18 month-long battle with cancer, it was enough to put more than a bit of a damper to the start of my week. In addition to the numerous homages, obituaries, and tweets about our thoughts on this enterprising musician appearing on the internet this week, I wanted to honor this inspiring man, and fulfill one of our Science with Style new year’s resolutions by talking about the ‘style’ side of Science with Style.
In the inaugural post describing the concept of Science with Style, I mentioned David Bowie as one of my inspirations as a person with style. In many ways science is the easier part of the concept to define in clear terms, mainly because the term ‘style’ gets more easily confused with other things. Is it being fashionable? Is it following trends? Is it being different? Is it a specific or unique approach for doing something?
A google image search of ‘David Bowie style’ will lead you to a wide selection of eclectic hairstyles, fabric choices, and colors, in a way that seems impossible for it all to have been adorned by a single man in his lifetime. But it’s all him, and in all the pictures ranging from young to old and in costumes or street clothes, he seems to carry the same confidence and self-assurance throughout his long and equally colorful career. Whether you picture Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom, the thin white duke, or any of his many alter egos, he started off as David Jones, an up-and-coming musician who just wanted people to stop disrespecting guys with long hair. Instead letting the things people said about his own style or ideas get to him, Bowie brushed them aside and personified who he was and who he eventually wanted to be.
While you could look at Bowie’s life and say that his characters were never truly ‘himself,’ you can also look at his colorful, chameleon-like shifts in persona and style as an analog of the metamorphosis we all experience throughout life. None of us are the same as we were in elementary school, or high school, or college, or anything in between where you are now and where you were last year. But the similarity between all of these stages in life is that we were ourselves, just at different points of understanding who exactly that person was. Part of the process of growing up is not in getting each step 100% right but in recognizing as you go what worked, what you liked, what made you feel good about who you are, and where you want to go next.
It may sound like an easy thing, but it’s amazing how hard just being yourself is to implement. In my own growing pains, I spent more time than I should have worrying about what other people thought of me. After finishing elementary school, leaving behind friends and entering into a new environment of class periods, gym class volleyball, and puberty, I had a sudden and frightening realization that I was weird. Instead of embracing who I was, I held back. I was shy in class, I didn’t seek out other equally weird friends, and I felt all the time that who I was as a person was lacking because I didn’t meet some nebulous expectation of what a 12-year old girl was supposed to be. While to a certain extent I grew out of the feeling, I still felt this tug during high school and college. But even with that tug of self-improvement and feelings that I wasn’t good enough, I started to grow out of my the self-doubts and continued to work on defining myself in better detail.
Graduate school brought a lot of new challenges: working in teams, learning how to fail (but also to keep on trying), and making PowerPoint presentations with less than 10 words on a slide. I’m thankful in my time as a PhD student that I also discovered that my weird wasn’t weird, it was just me. At the same time that I was starting to learn how to better be myself, I got “Life on Mars?” stuck in my head when my husband started singing along to a cover version of it. I then listened to the original, followed by a summer of having the "Best of Bowie" CD on permanent residency in my car’s CD player. Between blasting 'Rebel Rebel' while driving around campus with the windows down or singing along to 'Queen Bitch' during long pipetting sessions, I was soon completely enthralled with Bowie.
But it’s not just the songs I danced to, drove with, or sung out loud to that made Bowie enthralling. Amidst the stresses and uncertainties of research and grad school, I found solace and relaxation while listening to the “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” album, usually on repeat for hours on end. Never before had one album had a mix of songs with such power and emotion: from the relentless guitar intro of ‘Hang on to yourself’ to the slow build of ‘Five Years’ (which I still haven’t listened to all the way through this week without getting choked up). While it’s considered one of the best rock albums of all time, I didn’t know that fact before I fell in love with it, I just loved the way I didn’t feel alone after listening to it. “Oh no love! You're not alone; No matter what or who you've been; No matter when or where you've seen.” [David Bowie, 'Rock and Roll Suicide']
And in life’s moments that weren’t so serious or in need of a helping hand, I found Bowie was still there to remind me that sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to do what you want and not care what anyone else thinks. I got married in September 2012, and while I was not an overly worrisome bride, I still wanted everyone to enjoy the day. I avoided diving too deeply into my eclectic musical favorites for the reception playlist and instead focused on choosing a few songs that I knew certain family members or friends really wanted and let the DJ do the rest of the work. But apart from the slow dances with my husband and father, the song that stands out for me the most was when I heard 'Modern Love' start up on the speakers. I shot a smile at fellow Bowie fan and newly minted husband, and despite neither of us knowing much of anything about dancing, we gave it our all. We probably looked like some damn dancing fools, but I didn’t care. It was one of the best parts of my wedding. It was our song, and we danced our hearts out to it.
I find that even now, with a PhD and a year and a half of postdoc experience in hand and more serious thoughts of what career I’m setting out for, I still have moments that I need reminded of that 'Modern Love' dance, reminders that I’m weird AND I’m me, and that I’m not one without the other. Life as a scientist and as a researcher has a way of making you feel like that who you are as a person is somehow lacking. There’s always a paper that needs to be written, data that needs analyzed, cells that need split. Or an email reply, meeting, conference talk, or collaboration on the ever-growing to do list. Some days we don’t get work right the first time around, and some days we simply can’t do everything that needs doing. Some days we don’t feel like we fit in, especially when we compare ourselves to what we perceive people spend their time doing with a ‘normal’ 9-5 job, while we’re spending Saturday afternoons in the lab contemplating raw data, unlabeled test tubes, and half-written manuscripts.
It’s in those moments of self-doubt and uncertainty that we all need to learn how to better embrace our own sense of personal style. Whether you waltz, samba, tango, or just nod your head to the beat, dance along to the music as life gives it you while you figure out how to fold in your own rhythms to it. Style is not about trends, or fashion, or doing things right or wrong: it’s about doing things in your way, in a way that makes you shine. You won’t get it right the first time, and you won’t meet everyone’s expectations, but as long as you strive for finding yourself, whoever that is, you’ll succeed in the end.
While we can’t tell you how to find your own sense of style, since it is yours after all, hopefully with this post and a few short tips you can set yourself on your way to becoming your own Ziggy Stardust of sorts:
Throughout his life and musical career, David Bowie shared his music and showed us the meaning of style. If science is a way of thinking, then style is a way of living: we are thankful for his legacy of style through music, fashion, and in just who he was as a person. Bowie will certainly continue to be an inspiration here at Science with Style and a go-to musician for times that need comfort, support, strength, and, of course, those moments when you need to just dance.