• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


ABC's and PhD's: Nerdy fun

A couple weeks ago our family got gussied up to go to an evening ball – an annual summer extravaganza our kids have never missed.

July 27, 2011

A couple weeks ago our family got gussied up to go to an evening ball – an annual summer extravaganza our kids have never missed. Our elaborate outfits took weeks to invent and create; all around us in the hours before the ball there was much primping and preening … and taping, stapling, snipping, running to neighbors for safety pins and scraps of colored felt – for you see, this wasn’t just any old ball, this was the 37th annual invertebrate ball, which only takes place after the invertebrate biology summer course at the Friday Harbor marine biology field station, off the coast of Washington state, where we spend two months each summer. Each attendee dresses to the nines – as his/her favorite marine invertebrate animal.

We arrived in our glorious best at the dining hall, admiring the attire of our 75 or so fellow ball-goers as they wriggled, swam, slithered and crawled into the dining hall: all ranks of faculty, researchers, lab staff, post-docs, grad students, a few undergrads, and researcher’s spouses, teens and kids (the lab rats, we call them). Inside the hall, a chiton played foosball with a squid. An elaborate polychaete worm shook her chaetae at us as she passed. Jellyfish decorations fashioned from plastic milk containers and bubble-wrap dangled from the rafters, cardboard barnacles clung to the walls, and invertebrate-themed munchies (you don’t want the details!) decked the tables for the brave and hungry.

Although the costumes are created from what could easily be found on hand: paper plates, large plastic garbage bags, plastic tubing, and all manner of items secured from the thrift shop in town, invert ball attendees go all out on their outfits, with much attention paid to biological detail –making these wonderful critter costumes great fun to identify. My younger daughter studied photographs and youtube videos to ensure she accurately represented the look and behavior of a feather duster worm as she fashioned her large, spray-painted pink box “worm tube” to wear over her body which allowed her to thread feathery feeding apparatuses out holes cut in the top. My older daughter chose to go as a fiddler crab, sporting a vibrant red vest, pants and beret she found at the thrift store, a large cardboard claw, and carrying her violin. She and her clarinet-playing octopus friend spent the days before the ball practicing a “spineless sonata”; together they jigged it out to impress the judges during the costume parade and much to their delight, they won one of the coveted gilded trophies, awarded by the judges for the most “sonorous” costumes. My husband wore a “punny” costume –a fur collar around his neck to represent a teeny-fur (the real animal is spelled ctenophore; a beautiful swimming jelly creature). Decorated with yarn and gauze, my hat transformed me into a jellyfish.

My kids have trouble relating this oddball event to their peers upon returning home at the end of the summer, but they make the attempt with the same enthusiasm and energy that they throw into making their costumes – showing off pictures, a few saved parts of their costumes, and this year, I’m sure, the venerable trophy will come out many times.

Though I often forget to be aware of it, there are a lot of pressures upon children of academics; high expectations and potentially a lot to rebel against. I push my children pretty hard, in school and out of school (hopefully in an encouraging way, but no matter what it’s demanding!) Of course I’m not alone in this. But along with these pressures are opportunities – golden opportunities – that we are lucky as academic parents to share with our kids and that can really turn them on and motivate creativity and hard work. The goofy, nerdy, relaxed, silly fun of the invertebrate ball bonds together an academic community – of all ages and experience, to the benefit of all. Participating is far more rewarding than the awarded trophy (and harder to explain!) Do you have golden academic opportunities to share that have touched the lives of your family?


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