Thoughts on what it means to be a scientist. Getting the degree alone will not make you one.
The last hurdle to pass my honours degree was to go through an oral exam. You could be questioned on anything science/microbiologically related, from something that was self-study in a textbook from 2 years ago, to your opinion on a current outbreak, it could be a role-play scenario where you have to lead a lab using the skills you’ve just acquired, whether you thought viruses are living or not and evidence supporting it… To calculations of a dilution series.
After I got over the trauma of the 2 hour barrage of questions (granted there were a lot of snarky professors and I sometimes don’t test well verbally – a trademark of being an introvert, but something I’ve tried to work on), I realised that there were many life lessons to be learned from that exam. Seven years later, and I still remember the external examiner saying to me, “talk more science in your everyday life”. This advice has been invaluable to me.
So for today’s blog post, some thoughts on what it means to be a scientist and just a well-balanced person really. And if you want the summary of the post –> Getting the degree will not make you a scientist, science is all around you so anyone can be a scientist.
Science is everywhere. Ruminate on concepts, chew it over and over. What do you mean you don’t stay up at night wondering how they get the soft gooey centres in the chocolates or for that matter, how they get the tiny bubbles in chocolates?! I just admitted I have sleepless nights over chocolates🤦.
Stop studying just to pass exams
Study for the job you’re going to do as a scientist. Study for the decisions you will make in a company as to whether the water is safe enough for human consumption, what are the acceptable levels of rat hairs in the chocolate, what are the implications of the outlying data in the medicine you’re developing. Study to be able to advise people in power of the policies they’re about to implement.
Jargon – get rid of it
You’re not a scientist if you’re bamboozling people with your jargon. Einstein said it best, ‘You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.’ Cut through the clutter, find the simple in the complex. That is what distinguishes great scientists from the merely competent.
Arrogance doesn’t look good on anyone
Yes, you studied hard. Yes, not everyone can do what you do, just the same as you can’t do what everyone else does. Be able to accept that there will always be opposing ideas to your own, yet you should still be able to converse in a respectful manner. Listen to what others are saying, you might just learn something new.
Own your science
You’re taught in science to write in the passive voice, they say it gives an air of objectivity. I recently wrote an abstract that went like this: we did this and we found that. My PI scrapped it, but that doesn’t mean that this is how science is going to be communicated forever. It’s time for scientists to embrace self-promotion. If you’re doing interesting science (all science is interesting in some way), why not speak about it and own it?
You are the next generation
When I was going through a tough time (snarky professors), my father said, “don’t worry, they won’t be around forever. Someday they’ll retire and you’ll be there to take over”. You will be the next generation of scientists to take over, so the changes you want to see being made, hold onto that. What I want to see, is kindness in academia.
Develop your voice, have an opinion
Nobody likes fence-sitters and people doing a dance in ambivalence. Focus on being an interesting person, make efforts to develop your personality. Gone are the days of the stereotype of the boring old scientist. Read outside of your field, keep up with current affairs. Become a global citizen, be a critical thinker.
Keep in mind, it’s a PhD, not a Nobel prize!
We work on big questions that have been around for years or decades, and we have to identify new aspects of those big questions. We might make small progress towards those questions and it will take years. Incremental science is still important. Little by little makes a lot.
And for those that made it thus far, the Easter egg for you is: they use a bacterial enzyme that slowly breaks down the contents of the middle of a chocolate until it’s nice and gooey. And to get the bubbles, they pump gases like carbon dioxide or nitrogen, they don’t use oxygen because that would make it rancid.