‘Life’ as a scientist: The Cheshire Cat effect

Another post after a brief hiatus because of work-related pressure. I’m sure nobody missed me, though. [Sniff!] Well, the pressure’s still on, but let’s say I was inspired to write this post by a chance occurrence, a question asked by a physician friend of mine. An accomplished and established surgeon in India, he is considering various possibilities and options, having recently learnt that his young son is desirous of coming to the US to pursue a career in biological research.

He asked me: how is life as a scientist in biological sciences or genetics etc? Very tough, boring life that leaves you no time? Or fulfilling and all that?

You could hear from a mile the sound of my mental machinery creaking and groaning and whirring. Naturally, I’d be delighted to welcome a budding scientist to the fold, but I also wanted to provide my friend with as true and complete a picture as I possibly could.

Shying away from the usual spiel on the quality of scientific research done at noted US universities and institutions of renown (my friend is aware of all that), I focused on the core of his question – the life as a scientist. What exactly is life as a scientist? Is it, like, life in all its glories as presented with a sonorous narration in a Discovery Channel documentary, or is it more of life, as in “Dude! Get a life!“? Does life of the latter kind come to the scientists in the manner of the proverbial Cheshire Cat of Alice in Wonderland, appearing suddenly with a mischievous grin and then vanishing slowly and unattainably until nothing but the grin is left, and then –Poof!– that is gone, too?

Pushing aside these philosophical (and ultimately useless) cogitations, I set to writing him a reply. Here’s a part of what I wrote:

There are several angles to this question, all of which – in the final synthesis – boil down to the matter of temperament.

First, as with every other profession, the rewards of a career in science are not consistent – and indeed, may even be considered insignificant under certain lights. There will be work-related irritation, frustration, aggravation and denial, some of which may even spill into one’s personal life if one cannot carefully separate the personal from the professional.

Secondly, even if one is passionate about the work to begin with, it would be difficult to sustain that same level of passion through the years. However, professional scientists can usually keep their interest aflame by diversifying into multiple research questions and/or refocusing their priorities.

Thirdly, life as a young researcher may be impecunious. One simply doesn’t become a scientist if one’s goal in life is to become a millionaire outright. I admit that in rare moments of self-doubt, I have thought about young adult basket-ball players and other athletes (especially the talented Jeremy Lin in recent times), who seem to command an exorbitant amount of money in exchange for their prowess and agility, whereas we, the science researchers in the same country, despite contributing day in and day out towards the betterment and progress of humanity, are doomed to live in relative penury.

To the discerning mind, however, the rewards are manifold, even though they may not readily translate to wads of greenbacks or pots of gold. Fulfillment is often a matter of perception, after all.

To many scientists, there is an element of thrill-seeking in what they do. Understanding a problem, analyzing it, putting forth a rational hypothesis and then performing rigorous experiments to test its validity, anticipation of the results, the joy that one feels when the observed data vindicate one’s hypothesis or the sobering effect when they don’t and push the scientist back to the drawing board – there is a lot of drama, excitement, emotional upheavals therein that can be quite enjoyable overall.

There are many scientists who find the challenge of an intractable problem very attractive and engrossing. To them, the systematic attempts at puzzle-solving, especially if the problem happens to be multi-layered, are themselves fulfilling; if they do manage to unravel the mystery, it can be very rewarding, sometimes even lucrative.

Many scientists, especially those working upon problems of immediate consequences to, say, the health and well-being of living beings, including their fellow humans, are often fortunate enough to observe the benefits of their work in relatively real-time. It can be incredibly fulfilling as well as humbling. On the other hand, even those scientists, whose professional endeavors are distally related to health, and more proximally, to basic and/or applied problems in biology, have the satisfaction of knowing that their work connects them to a larger continuum, because modern living organisms, having evolved from same or similar ancestors at different levels, often share a surprising degree of relatedness.

In addition, the sharing and communication of one’s research outcomes within the scientific community and without is no less gratifying. Having one’s work accepted for publication in a scientific journal of repute can be quite life-affirming. Recognition and renown for one’s work, when they eventually arrive, ain’t too shabby either. Accomplished scientists often wish to spread or share their experience and life’s journey, thereby hoping to influence younger minds and instilling the spirit of enquiry.

Many of these intellectual rewards or fulfillment that I mentioned above may initially seem too esoteric and far-fetched, but they exist – they require a fair bit of hard work, but they are not unattainable goals. This is important to understand, especially for a new graduate student.

The entire period of graduate studies (leading to a PhD degree) is – as I see it – essentially a period of training. One learns not only technical skills of various sorts, one also learns how to integrate one’s knowledge in one’s work. One grasps the value of perspectives – how to view one’s own work in the context of a larger picture. One picks up valuable people skills, skills of interaction, communication, presentation and the art of networking, as well as how to work cohesively in a group setting and independently at the same time. One assimilates the ways and means of effective time management, and the benefits thereof. Most importantly, under competent mentorship, one gets a thorough grounding in the scientific method.

To me, this is the most crucial aspect of training as, and being, a scientist. A scientist is much more than what one does; it refers to what one is. It is possible to integrate in one’s life, or one’s attitude towards life, the basic tenets of the scientific method, objectivity, reliance on empirical evidence, a rational and skeptical outlook, and an ability to question, observe and analyze, to varying degrees. People who successfully do that are also able to effortlessly transition from their workbench to life outside and back.

As far as having ‘time’ to do other things is concerned, I have found that it largely depends on the individual. It is indeed possible to manage one’s time effectively, so as to be able to pursue other interests. Examples abound. Just to randomly name a few instances, Paul Z Myers is an accomplished and popular biology professor, with a tremendously celebrated blog. Stephen Curry is a noted structural biologist who still finds time to blog and write for the Guardian. Russian composer Alexander Borodin was a life-long and distinguished researcher in organic chemistry. Jennifer Rohn is a working cell biologist who is a champion for the genre of “Lab-Lit”, is an author, as well as finds time for political advocacy for science funding in the UK. Canadian physicist Diane Nalini de Kerckhove combines a career as a successful scientist with her job as a professional jazz singer. As I said right at the beginning, it is a matter of temperament. If one loves what one does, one does it well – no matter what – and garners fulfillment from it.

What do you think, gentle readers? Please throw in your comments, suggestions, bouquets and brickbats in the comment section.

Ciao!

8 Comments

  1. Wow! Very upbeat – which I admire/envy (because it wouldn’t have been so from me). This beautifully-argued piece deserves comment, if only to say so. (Do you ever wonder that you’re banging your head against a brick wall here?)

  2. Hello, Lee! By ‘upbeat’, you don’t by any chance mean ‘naïve’, do you? It wouldn’t be off the mark if you did. It’s not that I don’t have doubts, but this is the best I can do. One needs something to propel one forward, no?

    Do you ever wonder that you’re banging your head against a brick wall here?

    My soul-brother!! 🙂 Boy, do I ever! In six days after this post, and countless plugs and kind retweets later, I have one comment to show for it, yours.

    Anyway, I try not to let it affect me. I write when I feel like I have something to say. I have no specific claim to either prolificity, or even quality of writing; therefore, I can’t complain. The response, as always, is the audience’s prerogative.

  3. Hi again,

    If you are ‘naïve’ (which didn’t come to mind, by the way), am I cynical? I hope not. But I am this afternoon learning of another episode of the way university HR mis-treats and disrespects noble science postdocs.

    Anyway… a week later… I still nod in agreement with your last comment. But…

  4. Lee, someday you and I should meet and trade stories of the popular university HR/Dean’s Office pastime of postdoc-bashing over pints. 🙂

  5. Hi Kausik,

    I can’t agree more with what you said. It all comes down to the individual at the end. It might also be hard sometimes if the subject at hand is not of immediate relevance. I once had to answer a similar question and it was a boy in his final school years who wanted to pursue career in science. Science is not an option, as I feel, for someone looking for quick bucks and fixed working hours..but the satisfaction and excitement it gives in terms of learning and discovering new things almost on a day to day basis (however small they might be) is what keeps people going and to an extent this also changes how one looks at life!

  6. Well-said, Tej. And in saying

    … to an extent this also changes how one looks at life!

    aap ne toh meri muh ki baat chhin li [You snatched the words right out of my mouth]. I have always maintained that science is a way of life. More on that if I get a chance later.

  7. Hello Kausik,

    will be looking forward to it!!

  8. Not much constructive to add from me, Kausik, but an enjoyable meander through some of your thought processes. Perhaps I could ask “are we scientists because of who we are to begin with, or does learning about/doing science change us?”

    Keep up the good work, whenever you get the chance!

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