Why I'm a Scientist

Feb 18 2009 Published by under Activism

You know that huge "25 things" meme going around Facebook? I hate those things. I've got something like 20 notes now that have me "tagged". I kind of want to fill it out, and it would look something like this:
1) I hate memes
2) I really hate memes where people try too hard to be witty
3) I think this meme sucks
...and so on.
But once in a while I come across a meme that I think is worthy of Sci's time and attention (my attention is in fact very cheap and easily caught by things that are shiny. My time, however, requires something like three week's notice, a follow-up email, and a personal organizer. Sci got a lot goin' on.) This one isn't a meme really, it's more a question going around the blogs:
Why am I a Scientist?
I like questions that are not yet memes, and this one is certainly thought-provoking, esp as I get to a rather life-changing segment of my career. For several great takes on this question, I'd recommend two of my fav peeps, JLK, Leigh (the kind of scientist Sci always wishes she was), the ever awesome Physioprof, and Ambivalent Academic (who started it all, and I'm really looking forward to the next few posts. I think Ambivalent Academic might actually be my mind-twin or something).
So this question got me thinking. A lot. Why AM I a scientist?

Why AM I a scientist. Kind of fell into it, I guess. I wouldn't say there has been a choice to become a scientist, so much as there have been a series of choices that keep me in science. Sci is not naturally very science-minded (shocking, I know). My advisor told me once that I'm a scientist with the heart of a philosopher, and I considered that a wonderful compliment.
Over the years, Sci has wanted to be many things. I've still got my childhood fixation with dinosaurs. For a good while, I wanted to be a musician. Then an actress, then a writer, and then...the list goes on. But all the time, I kept taking science classes. I went to science camps, did science-related projects during my free periods in school. I always wanted to go to the Natural History museum for my birthday. Somehow, through all the acting and music and philosophy and poetry and everything else, the science persisted, sometimes in the background, but always there.
I really decided on biology in college. And by "decided", I mean it was one of my majors along with Philosophy. That was the first time the beauty of science got to me, and the first time I felt like a mad scientist in the lab (this is a very important stage of scientific development, the first mad scientist feeling). Being the total geek I was, I would make poster-board drawings of all the phyla before exams (I still have that around somewhere, I was very tired by the time I got to the tablet animals, so I think they are particularly amusing). I clearly remember the day I got to put one of my hairs under an electron microscope. I still have the photo somewhere. I stared at it for hours, all the little scales of protein that made up my hair. I even hung it on the wall over my bed. My roommate had a HUGE periodic table over her bed. I've missed that thing ever since.
I remember long hours in the lab where I volunteered, playing music at top volume while I stared into a microscope. It was often boring, and extremely frustrating (new technique, new species, argh). But there was still a huge feeling of excitement. I was in a LAB! I was doing SCIENCE!
That feeling of excitement is what keeps you coming back. The days are long (in my case, often VERY long), and frustrating as all hell. For grad students, the pay is low to non-existent. In my case, I was not the smartest, and picked a couple of techniques which are both extremely difficult and very time-consuming. Many days you leave depressed, and wonder why you don't just give up and do something else. After all, I got into grad school, I've clearly got brains. I could get a job where I only had to work 9-5, no weekends, with vacation. It would pay more than enough. But it wouldn't BE enough.
It's that feeling of excitement. The feeling you get when your horribly-frustrating-taking-you-YEARS-to-learn experimental technique bears fruit. When you get it RIGHT. And when your data is completely beautiful. Those are the times Sci jumps up and down, drags the tech in to look, and does her geeky little dance along with "I'm a scientist, it's your birthday, I'm a scientist!" I need to trademark this data song-and-dance, obviously. I know you all are going to try it.
Of course, most of the time you're not really sure how to interpret the beautiful data you just got. But it's there, the shining comfort that you're not an idiot (scientists spend a LOT of time thinking they are idiots, actually), the feeling of accomplishment, and the knowledge that you were asking a question that you could answer. It's a satisfaction that stays with you for days.

Of course we're not just in it for the mad-scientist feelings (though they are great). Though I like basic science and I'm very interested in the questions of the universe, I went into my field to help people. I want to find things that will advance our knowledge of how to treat disease. Scientists are often extremely compassionate people. I cannot stand to see someone helpless, particularly against something like a psychiatric disorder or an addiction. That is the worst kind of helplessness, the kind that we just don't have a cure for yet. These are diseases that need more than drugs, they need understanding and compassion, from the doctors and basic scientists alike.
But I also want to to help people to understand science, to realize it's not some scary thing done in labs by impersonal robots in coats. That science is curiosity at its best. That ANYONE can be curious (SCI-curious!), anyone can ask these questions, and find ways to answer them. The ways we solve our problems and answer our questions are things that help to make the human species what it is (along with lots of other factors, of course). I want people to not be scared by science, to feel the excitement that scientists feel, to GEEK OUT.
I'm a scientist not just to DO science, but to share it. To share the findings, the wonder, and the understanding that we get from what we do. The sense of wonder keeps me coming back to the lab, and the frustrations and headaches keep me endlessly challenged. I want to share that feeling with others, give them that sense of wonder. Maybe some day they'll be doing data-dances of their own!

17 responses so far

  • Laelaps says:

    Great post, Sci! I hear you about the "25 things" meme. I have been tempted to fill it out, too, but I just don't think I'm that interesting.
    Unfortunately I can't call myself a scientist, but if I could my reasons for being one would be similar to yours. It is just so exciting!

  • I did the 25 things meme, just for fun, and one of my first items was calculating how many iterations it would take to cover the entire population of the planet.
    I quite understand not doing it - but please don't make some huge point of it. If there's one thing I hate worse than memes, it's people who think they're so superior that they have to point out to everyone else how superior they are because they don't do memes 🙂

  • This is a lovely post, Sci. Yay science!

  • Chris Rowan says:

    Great post. My only complaint is that this:
    Sci is not naturally very science-minded
    is clearly bollocks.

  • Scicurious says:

    Cath: don't worry, I won't be filling out the meme, and I swear that's the only point I'll make about it. Ok, and this one. I mean, do you REALLY want all your 500 friends on Facebook to know about your botched C-section, the time you were dropped from a felony to a misdemeanor (yay), and that time you had the gastrointestinal parasite and was shitting worms for days? I have seen ALL of these on this meme. Some things, I don't need to know.
    And I do do some memes. I totally did that song one with my ipod. 🙂

  • Stephanie Z says:

    They didn't build anything into the grants for steampunk?!?
    Great post, Sci. Dead on about the 9 to 5 too. I don't know anyone who does it who doesn't also do something on the side that's more...I don't know, just more.

  • JLK says:

    Fantastic post, Sci!

  • Get out! I think we really might be mind twins. BS - Biology, BA - Philosophy.
    Great post - you have lit a fire under my butt to finish part two.

  • Scicurious says:

    ambivalent academic: NO WAY!!! Too crazy. you must be my mind-twin. WHAT WAS MY SENIOR PHIL THESIS ON?! ANSWER NOW!! 🙂

  • Spinoza's rational proofs.

  • I meant geomteric proofs...typing in too many windows at once.

  • leigh says:

    ooh, you did it! i think this meme is totally interesting.
    what exactly do you mean when you say i'm the kind of scientist you wish you were? we'll both be phd's in pharmacology... NEUROpharmacology no less... what greater coolness could be bestowed upon someone? 😉

  • Oh yeah, and:
    'My advisor told me once that I'm a scientist with the heart of a philosopher, and I considered that a wonderful compliment.?
    ...my UG philosophy advisor told me the very same thing - or maybe it was "philosopher with heart of scientist". I can't remember now but that was pretty great compliment.
    And the similarities are starting to get kind of creepy.

  • LtStorm says:

    And this makes me think about why I'm a scientist. When I was a kid I devoured anything and everything that had to do with science from shows like Beakman's World and Bill Nye to kids magazines that explained stuff like how lightning was thought to work. I didn't think I could actually be a scientist until the end of my freshmen year of college. I started as an art major, and started talking to the chemistry professor, who explained to me how I could easily change majors to a scientific field and get into it. So I did, and now I have a shiny B.S. in chemistry (ACS certified!) and am working on a Ph.d. (And shirking work to type this in-between working on the math for the next reaction I have to run!)
    I think I have a 'mad scientist' moment every time I manage to make a big, expensive instrument actually work correctly.
    The amount of cursing and re-doing experiments isn't mentioned in undergrad chemistry labs where the procedure and instructor have worked out all the kinks before you touch things.

  • LtStorm says:

    To append my last post: I especially get a 'mad scientist' feeling while using the MALDI. There are far to few scientific instruments that require you to vaporize things with a laser to use.

  • arvind says:

    Awesome post! Just so you know, my mental image of you when I read your blog is of Agatha Heterodyne.
    But...but...more importantly...you ARE on facebook??? Oh hai, I can frend yu? Kthnxbai.

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