The trials of being a scientist…
Having a career in science can be exhilarating at the best of times, interesting most of the time (hopefully!), and downright frustrating at the worst of times. Those times when your experiments keep failing, your PI is getting on your nerves, your paper is rejected by reviewers, your grant wasn’t accepted… yes those are tough times. It’s easy to question our commitment to the field and our patience is routinely tested. It’s times like these that we need something to give us a reason to continue, a little scientific inspiration if you will.
Why did you get into science?
We all had our reasons for starting a career in science in the first place. We all met people that acted as role models, saw movies that involved amazing advances in technology, or read books or magazines that awoke the pleasure present within simply finding things out. Yet, I think its easy to lose sight of those experiences from our past which fade into history.
I believe that if we rediscover those inspirations, they will give us the strength to continue and persevere during the occasional low points in a difficult career. Let me tell you about my personal inspirations, hopefully they start you on your journey to remembering your reasons for choosing science.
The earliest inspiration I can remember was my father. My parents weren’t the type to entice their children to pursue a particular career path, like those stereotypical “successful” careers of medicine and law. What my dad did was nurture those interests and feelings I expressed naturally and provide avenues to express my obvious joy in scientific discovery. I could buy any sci-fi novel I wanted, we took regular trips to the science center and museum, we went on “fossil hunting” trips to the city’s beaches, he even bought me telescopes and microscopes. I think what all these activities inevitably did was show me the purest of motivations for a choosing career: joy and amazement.
The next period of memorable inspiration I had were my high school biology and chemistry teachers. I remember learning for the first time about evolution, biochemistry, and enzymes, and being absolutely enthralled. I was fascinated that the marvels of life we see around us could be understood at the most basic of levels: molecules forming shapes that allow them to perform certain tasks inherent to life (as you will see this will be a running theme in my blogs). It was easy to make the choice for my future: I knew I would study biochemistry in university.
In my second year of undergrad, I had the opportunity to take a “research opportunity” course. While most of my friends had not even stepped in a lab yet, I was carrying out research in the field of structural bioinformatics. This course was set up in a way that accurately reflected the manner in which science is actually done – students spent a week conducting solo research, with one afternoon in a small discussion group with classmates and the sponsoring professor. More importantly, the professor showed us (rather than just reading about it) how to be critical, innovative, and collaborative thinkers. It was one of my first hands on experiences within real world science and it was exhilarating.
I had the privilege of learning more about the history and philosophy of science both through courses and personal reading. I remember being fascinated by the greats in evolution like Darwin, Wallace, and Mendel, and the pioneers of biochemistry like Pasteur, Pauling, Watson and Crick, Perutz and Kendrew. I became a huge fan of the work of Carl Sagan, the veritable magician behind the popularization and communication of science and how it can be a “candle in the dark”, as he always said.
Then came graduate school. I remember the day that I met my supervisor and was introduced to my research project. It was interesting, relevant, diverse, exciting, and fun. I remember thinking “I’m going to have all this fun doing my research, I’m going to get a degree out of this, AND I’m going to get paid to do it? Where do I sign!?”
Using your past to fuel your future.
Of course, I am not suggesting that the greats that developed science never encountered problems, or that an experiment failing in an undergraduate class is equivalent to an experiment failing that puts a Ph.D degree in jeopardy, or even that it isn’t tough to deal with repeated setbacks in research. My point is that through the trials and tribulations, it becomes easy to forget the why we love what we do, and the excitement it can produce when research goes right. I believe that the source of the necessary persistence, resilience, and patience is the passion, joy, and excitement for discovery. Without that passion, scientists are aimless and will never succeed.
I’m sure you’ve all had similar experiences that inspired your interest in science. I encourage you to take a few minutes to remember why you chose science as a career. The next time you are faced with a challenging situation, bring those experiences and positive feelings to mind. We all need some help from time to time so let your history and your inspirations provide your strength.