Have any readers here recently watched “The Dropout” on Hulu? It’s a fictionalized show about Elizabeth Holmes and the genesis of Theranos. For those unaware, Theranos was an infamous biotech start-up the Silicon Valley. Elizabeth Holmes, the CEO, purported that their machine “The Edison” could perform hundreds of blood tests with only a single drop of blood. This is in contrast to other blood-testing equipment, like Seimens or OBC Diagnostics, which require more blood (about 10 mL). It’s a complicated issue, and it doesn’t help the fact that Elizabeth Holmes was a college dropout trying to shill this non-existent technology. I want to get to that, but first, let’s talk about this show.
The first episode begins in the early 2000s, when Elizabeth is a young, promising high school graduate, and follows her into her first and second years at Stanford. Elizabeth is clever and shows promise in her understanding of biotech, so she designs a prototype for a wearable patch that could deliver medications while also monitoring the variables in a patient’s blood. It was a cool science fiction idea but scientifically impossible. In the series premiere of “The Dropout,” Elizabeth presents her idea to Dr. Phyllis Gardner, played by Laurie Metcalf, who brusquely dismisses her idea. This is my favorite scene from the show because the following exchange takes place:
Gardner: People go to school for a very long time to understand how to diagnose patients. You can’t get a diagnosis from a patch because human beings aren’t machines.
Elizabeth: But doctors make mistakes. And this would be based on data, so…
Gardner: Well, data isn’t everything. Um, people your age need to remember that machines make mistakes too, especially when humans are operating them [.…] You had an idea, it’s not gonna work, so you just, you keep learning. Keep trying.
[Elizabeth tries to counter with the famous Yoda quote]
Elizabeth: “Do or do not, there is no try.”
[Gardner was unimpressed. Elizabeth is adamant about her and Gardner working together despite her lack of knowledge and experience, and Gardner has this response.]
Gardner: Well, as a woman, let me explain something to you. You don’t get to skip any steps. You have to do the work. Your work, other people’s work. You have to do so much work that they have to admit that you did it and nobody helped you. You have to take away all their excuses. And then if you get anything, anything wrong, they’ll destroy you. And they’ll be so happy to do it. So no, as a woman, I can’t help you right now.
And just…. *Sighs*
One other thing, don’t ever quote Yoda to anybody ever again. Science is trying. That’s all that it is. You only get to really do something when you’ve been trying for so long that doing doesn’t even seem possible anymore. So science is real. Yoda is a fictional green character who apparently knows everything in the universe except for syntax and grammar. So I’m sorry your idea’s impossible, but that’s the way the world works.The Dropout, Season 1 Episode 1
Watching Gardner shut down the burgeoning monster Elizabeth like that was a strange balm for my weary soul. Was it because I have a personal vendetta against Elizabeth? No, not exactly, but I think she’s done a lot of harm to people (through medical and financial fraud) and deserves a prison sentence.
I found the scene so wonderful for a different reason. For my entire life, I have been inundated with media imagery screaming the same message from the tallest mountain:
“SCIENCE IS FOR SMART PEOPLE.”
A classic example is Tony Stark, the coolest billionaire/genius inventor/billionaire playboy to ever exist. Tony Stark, played brilliantly by Robert Downey Jr., went to MIT at age 14 and graduated summa cum laude at age 17. After that, he went on to do a bunch of cool stuff, like build a suit of powered armor and a whole generator from spare parts while being held captive in a cave jail by a terrorist organization.
Meanwhile, it once took me two days to disassemble an Ikea desk because I didn’t know how to remove a cam lock screw. We are not the same.
Tony Stark was a fun character because he was cocky and irreverent, but he had the skills to back up his otherwise insufferable personality. He was like Ayn Rand’s dream. He took on Loki and Ultron and Thanos armed with nothing but his brain (and all of his money and resources). He was just that great.
So let me tell you about my own experience in science, and you can tell me how much Mr. Stark and I have in common. As a lot of my blog brushes on subjects like failure, low self-esteem, and mental health, I’m sure you’ll find that I’m basically the same person as Iron Man.
As a kid, I had a pipe dream about being a dermatologist. A normal career aspiration for any 9-year-old. As a high school student, I arrogantly assumed that I would have no trouble getting into medical school. After all, I had an A in precalculus and sophomore chemistry. I was a genius, and my high school success would transfer perfectly to college.
Then I went to college, and reality hit me like the fist of an angry god. My dreams of being a doctor vanished in a blaze like Semele after gazing upon Zeus in his divine form. As much as I enjoyed learning, most of my undergrad STEM courses were technically difficult, and the programs were not designed with student success in mind. There is a reason we have such a term as “weeder class” and why organic chemistry has such an unpleasant reputation.
To give you an example of this, I had a professor purposefully change his grading scale because, in a prior semester, too many students had received A’s. Our university could have interpreted this as a professor and student success story and used his course as an example. Rather, the goal post was moved so that fewer students would receive that ever-elusive “A.”
It was discouraging.
By the time I graduated, I didn’t think I was very smart, and I didn’t know what to do with myself because more academia seemed like a path to further failure. Like many recent college grads, I didn’t know what to do. Medical School seemed impossible. I honestly wasn’t sure if I should continue with STEM, a feeling shared by many of my fellow undergrads (not that I knew it at the time).
STEM attrition is a serious problem. According to a 2013 study by Xianglei Chen, STEM attrition among bachelor’s students was at 48%, and 69% for associate’s degree students. This part of the study stood out to me: “Specifically, taking lighter credit loads in STEM courses in the first year, taking less challenging math courses in the first year, and performing poorly in STEM classes relative to non-STEM classes were associated with an increased probability of switching majors for STEM entrants at both the bachelor’s and associate’s degree levels. Accumulating higher levels of withdrawn/failed STEM credits was also a critical factor for switching majors among bachelor’s degree STEM entrants.”
I don’t think any of this is surprising, particularly that failed/withdrawn STEM courses play a role in people switching majors. I’ve failed a STEM course before, and let me tell you, it is not a nice feeling. However, unlike some individuals in this study, I managed to pull myself together and graduate with my biology degree. A lot of hard work went into my bachelor’s degree and those B- grades. By the time I graduated, my self-confidence had plummeted. It didn’t help that no place wanted to hire me. Maybe this was for the best because I likely would have been one of the poor stooges at Theranos cherry-picking data for my capricious boss.
I have rarely seen this internal struggle portrayed in media. STEM is always split into two categories: those who get it and those who don’t. The problem is that this portrayal is false and borders on insensitive.
Imagine being a college student and struggling through one of your required physics courses. You’re scraping by with a “C” grade, but as it is a prerequisite for your degree, you’re trying to make the best of it. You decide to watch the 2012 film “Avengers” one day, and you’re pleasantly distracted from your problems until you get to that scene. All of the Avengers are talking about what a POS Loki is and wondering why he wants to steal a certain science McGuffin when Tony Stark waltzes into the room. Stark takes over the conversation with his obvious expertise and then has the following exchange with SHIELD Agent Maria Hill:
Tony Stark: The only major component he still needs is a power source of high-energy-density. Something to kick-start the Cube.
Maria Hill: When did you become an expert in thermonuclear astrophysics?
Tony Stark: Last night.
Could you imagine the feeling of struggling through something and then hearing someone else dismiss it as a topic that could be learned in a single night? Tony Stark may not be a real person, but his words still have an impact. Even though the MCU clarifies that Tony Stark is a very special boy, the reality of our world is that we need scientists to solve our problems, and we don’t have a real Tony Stark to solve those problems for us. Science cannot be reserved for the very special boys. It has to be for everyone.
I don’t think my criticism of this line is unfair, considering it is one of the most famous quotes from the MCU, which are some of the most popular movies in the world. Although I recognize these movies are made for entertainment and not to recruit high school seniors to become engineers, I still think we should be skeptical of the stereotypes these movies can enforce. It is not realistic that any person could become an expert in a subject in one night just by reading someone else’s notes.
It is important to try even if you do not understand something the first time. Scientists don’t become scientists because they’re smarter than everyone else. They became scientists because they enjoy the challenge of science and are willing to work hard to understand it.
I wonder how many students might feel liberated if they knew it was okay to fail and were encouraged to try again. Failure is painful, but it is necessary for growth. It is no coincidence that failure is an intrinsic part of the scientific process. We have to know why and how something fails to understand what works. And failure can lead to wonderful things! After all, it’s how we led to the invention of the pacemaker.
I enjoyed Phyllis Gardner’s role in “The Dropout” because I think her words set the tone for the remainder of the series. Throughout the show, we observed as the Theranos blood analysis devices failed repeatedly. No matter how much money or power Elizabeth Holmes accumulated, the machine did not work. The science was not there.
The world probably would have been a better place if Theranos had simply dissolved as a company and published whatever scientific research they had created. I am far from an expert on the complexities of biotech start-ups (and I would need more than a single night to learn everything), but there are certainly lessons to be learned from Theranos’ failure. If Holmes had admitted that her product had failed, she could have avoided hurting so many people.
I think my life would have been very different if someone had told me, “You will fail, and that’s okay. What matters is that you continue trying.”
It is tempting to give up on something if you’re not immediately good at it. Try to resist that impulse. You may not be able to understand Thermonuclear Astrophysics in one night, but that doesn’t mean you never will. If you don’t love it, then move on, but if you do, then one day you could be an expert.
Just not as smart as Tony Stark. Sorry about that.