Jun 6, 2010

scientist

After a 2-month spell of awkward hesitation, overthinking and worry, I finally decided which lab I wanted to permanently join as a Ph.D. candidate. Mercifully, things worked out - resolving at least a week's worth of unpleasant daydreams regarding my "inevitable" rejection - and I started work right away.

I hadn't anticipated what a difference it would make to be a Real Member of a lab, as opposed to a UROP student, intern or rotation student. Although my duties as a student researcher are not unfamiliar - and actually the project I'm working on is a direct continuation of my rotation project - the internal experience has proven to be entirely new. After a few days in my new lab, I noticed my attitude shifting. Somehow the time went faster. Instead of reading papers out of a sense of duty, I was looking them up for fun. I asked for extra background reading. Most of all, I found myself feeling irresistibly curious about my experiments.

It's not that I wasn't curious before. I was, in a removed way. But, as I've endlessly proclaimed in the context of early education, a lack of independence and ownership over one's work and learning dampens curiosity extraordinarily effectively. It's hard to be excited about doing exacting, repetitive work for a project that was created by somebody else, directed by somebody else, and that will be finished and celebrated by somebody else after you leave. In those situations, your ideas are of modest (if any) importance. You feel totally replaceable - and your curiosity begins to tend toward the hour, the contents of your lunch box, and your evening plans. I felt that way as a child so often, and yet somehow, I failed to recognize the same dullness of mind that had overtaken my scientific thinking as I pushed through my rotations.

So, I must say - it was wonderful to realize that my ideas are once again relevant and important. I feel twice as awake, and for the first time in years, I found myself wishing, on a lazy Sunday morning, that Monday would come sooner so I could hurry up and get some results! I might actually discover something! Imagine that! I might learn something that nobody on earth has ever learned before. Maybe it will open a door. Maybe, somehow, it will help people. That's what science should be about.

A few days ago, an essay edited by my new PI was returned to me, covered with correction. I realized later that I had expected to feel rather defeated by the sheer volume of comments - in fact, I'd almost been preparing myself for a brief period of embarrassed mourning. But as I through the paper, I started to smile. Every logical hole, sloppy reference and choppy description had been pointed out, and I suddenly realized that I was tired of getting away with those kinds of mistakes. I know better - every single error in my papers was one I'd thought about as I wrote it, and lazily decided to ignore on the grounds that nobody has ever called me on them before, so why bother? Well, I can't do that any more. Now I get to be a real scientist.

This is where things get seriously, though. Being a real scientist. Sometimes it's hard to know what that means. In some labs and institutions, being a scientist means being part of what is essentially a business whose product or brand is new information about a very specialized topic. And a couple hundreds of years ago, being a scientist meant you were a Thinker - and probably also an inventor, entrepreneur, philosopher, ethicist, radical or handyman! (And, possibly enemy of the state. Thank goodness for modern times.) This stark change is particularly evident in biology, which requires increasingly enormous amounts of money, specialized equipment, detailed background knowledge, and complicated techniques to do cutting-edge work. Although there's certainly nothing wrong with the "science as business" model, it doesn't appeal to me. What I LOVE about science is its way of calmly and rationally dismantling our frivolous hierarchies, irrational beliefs and false boundaries - along with our ignorance and suffering. Science is the great equalizer. We're all made of nothing but atoms - molecules, cells, tissues, organs. Our bodies constantly rebuild themselves, day in and day out. We aren't at all who we were yesterday - and we'll be different again tomorrow. The way we build our lives around certain power structures, our prejudices, our desires - it's a front and nothing more; a practical way to deal with the world so 6 billion organisms can have any hope of surviving together. I think it would be impossible for me to do good science while wrapped up in the illusion that I had to rise to the top. Because there isn't one. For me, what makes science go are the sparks of collaboration that set your mind wheeling off to new ideas, combined with a constant, sobering reminder, repeated ad nauseum, that new knowledge can be both helpful and dangerous.

As luck would have it, I have a feeling - though I'm wary of jumping to any conclusions this early on - that I have landed in the right place at the right time and, critically, with the right people, to figure out a way through this maze. I've got my fingers crossed.

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