I wrote a post last week based on reaction to an interaction on Twitter with @Sumscience (Summer Allen). I am not sure it was my best post. And I think between some of the things I wrote, there’s even more I could say- and probably more positive/constructive what I want my science career to be like (but probably can’t be). So this is a second reaction to my first reaction. What can I say. I’m a thinker. Introverted types tend to be that way. No, that doesn’t mean I’m super into myself (though I could stand to be- self-deprecation can actually be detrimental. I’ve thought of myself as less than for most of my adult life). I genuinely do care about other people.
I was listening to the ‘On Being’ interview with Lawrence Krauss this weekend. This was after I watched one of his ‘Origins Project’ presentations about scientific story telling and why it’s important to have science be a story (all the people on stage were incredible- the only one I’ve never been able to fully stand is Ira Flato…don’t know what that is, just never connected with him). In fact, I saw an ecology talk where the speaker talked about his work with algal blooms as a story- not usually something I’m interested in- but I got swept up by it despite myself. It was an interesting story about what made the algae bloom.
One of the things Dr. Krauss talks about is that people do science for fun; not because we get practical things out of it or produce technologies from it- that’s kind of a side effect of discovering new things. I do think there’s something to that. However, the ‘fun’ part seems to be done by the PIs like Dr. Krauss, whereas postdocs and Ph.D. students do the real work and get so focused on it that it’s too easy to lose sight of the big picture- or barely get a chance to remind ourselves of it. We’re working to prove ourselves still, to come up with our own groundbreaking understandings in our respective fields. So science should be fun- and seeing how it affects our lives is really cool to me. I know most scientists I talk to have a bigger curiosity about the world than just their tiny area; assuming we take time to explore…which I know I stopped doing when I was really depressed; and even still have trouble initiating adventure in my life.
Part of the reason for that is not feeling like I’ve earned the right to explore, or could afford the time. The pressure is on to do the best work we can in a short time to hopefully have our dreams of becoming a PI who can think about the big picture and have liberty to explore, engage in new projects, etc. As if exploration isn’t just a feature of being a human being.
Lean into uncertainty.
Dr. Krauss also talked about how science lives and breathes uncertainty and has to live there to make new discoveries. This is something I’ve written about before with regard to my own brain. It’s something I’ve been trying to cultivate in myself is a tolerance for uncertainty and doubt in my life, without it being paralyzing. In theory, this is what faith is all about, though in too many contemporary theologic contexts, faith is equivalent to certainty.
I think scientists do their best work when they can be uncertain and push themselves to be in that uncomfortable territory. I’ve experienced that twice this weekend. I did some new things on the confocal microscope that I hadn’t done before and I ran 12 miles- 3 miles beyond my personal longest run ever. I feel awesome having done both of those things, even if they’re truly minor in the scheme of things. I leaned in. I was unsure of exactly what I was getting into, but I decided to play around. I also tried a new simple method and may have gotten something good out of it (still have to analyze that data).
One of the current pressures on postdocs and grad students is to be perfect every time. As techniques get more expensive, time is more important than ever and rushing things to get volumes of POSITIVE data mean that wonder, fun and uncertainty go by the way side.
Not all research has to have a specific point or application immediately apparent. Over time, the accumulation of things we learn far outweighs the dead ends some of us end up pursuing.
Science is hard. Which is good. However, it is frustrating that to succeed, a lot of external factors have to come together- as well as internal ones. The current system for postdocs is not conducive to creativity or uncertainty in research. Do what works. Do it quickly. And often, you’re doing it for someone else, not your own purposes as jobs have dried up. I know a lot of us hope to break through to the other side, the sunny side of the academic experience, but it is seeming less and less likely that that can happen for most of us.
Now, most of us just hope for a decent career, or inventing one for ourselves that works. Years of not leaning into the uncertainty of it all and staying where I was because exploring seemed too daunting. The last few months, I’ve made a number of small leaps. Maybe I’m nearly ready for a big one.