Young scientists are always being told that they should explore career opportunities beyond the academic bench. Well, someone who seems to have taken that idea to the outer limits has just been named one of this year’s MacArthur Foundation “genius” awards for her work in that second career. Novelist and short story writer Yiyun Li was born in China and earned her bachelor’s degree in cell biology at Peking University in 1996. She then came to the US to pursue graduate work in immunology at the University of Iowa, receiving an MS in that field in 2000
Li, however, says that she had always wanted to be a writer rather than a researcher, despite being a self-described “math genius” in her youth. Her parents, though, strongly discouraged her literary aspirations as too dangerous in the political atmosphere of China. Her opportunity came in America, at University of Iowa, which, in addition to its science departments, is home to perhaps the nation’s most celebrated creative writing program. In 2005, Li received her Masters of Fine Arts in writing. Now an assistant professor of English at the University of California, Davis, and writing in her second language, she has published in New Yorker (the prestige equivalent of, say, a single-author article in Science) other major literary publications and authored several books.
Li certainly has looked much farther afield for opportunities than most scientists will. She must have enormous talent and drive to have achieved such astonishing success in so short a period. But the lesson incessantly repeated by career advisers applies nonetheless. Keeping eyes open for opportunities, even unusual ones, and paying attention to your own values and inclinations, even if they don’t exactly match other people’s, can lead to excellent outcomes.