A number of articles early this year presented scientists and their science ‘as they are’ to others.*

I am science looked at how people became part of science. Following Kevin’s original post and the many tweets that followed have been captured in a storify article and successfully raised crowd-sourced funding to turn it into an e-book.

Scientists have posted a photograph with a brief statement of who they are at This is what a scientist looks like.

Browse the sites – plenty to interest and amuse yourself with.

The Nature Jobs blog a post linked to a few people’s take on what motivates you as a scientist?

They looked at different career stages. My own interest is more with those from Ph.D. student onwards, those closer to research science.

What got you into science?

What keeps you at it? Has it changed over the years?

Yes: I’m asking you, readers.

Here are a couple of short examples.

Linked to from the Nature Jobs blog, Holly Bik, post-doc, wrote ’I’ve stuck to a research career because it allows me to continually feed my sense of wonder and awe. I can identify questions with no answers and finally do something about it.’

Christine Wilcox, Ph.D. student, chipped in with ’always loved animals of all shapes and sizes’ and apparently had a ’note in my school record from when I was five about how I liked to ’find dead geckos and open their mouths to see their tongues.’’ (!)

What about me? I have to do something to get you lot talking… You lot seem way too shy lately!

At high school I was a art student, if anything. Painting and photography were ‘my thing’. (And long-distance running, but that’s another story.)

When it came to applying for university, I had this thought that there was no ‘real’ way to make a living as an artist, at least not as an independent with their own material. I’m not sure what I think of that thought now.

In any event, rather than look towards the Fine Arts department, which appealed, I looked to what I thought were more practical courses.

As a youngster I was fond of wildlife, so naturally I leaned to the zoology department. For whatever reason, after pouring over the courses on offer, I found myself facing microbial science, genetics. I haven’t faintest idea why. (I simply can’t remember. There was also plant biology as part of the course, but the rote systematics part of it made me hate it. I still avoid plant biology, but now because I’m not familiar enough with it. No prizes for guessing why.)

I also took on a first-year computer science course, which I followed through my degree, in part because I found it easy. So I wound up with both biology and computer science side-by-side. (My major, as such, was in biology – genetics / microbiology. Later, doing research work, my biology has been mainly that of higher eukaryotes. Except plants.)

Each year of my undergraduate degree I made a point of picking the the biology course that appealed, without thought for my marks the previous year. I had something of a motto, then: ‘follow your nose’. Not in the blind sense, in the sense of following what interested you. Looking back at the end of my degree I found I’d taken the biology area I did worse in each year to next.

Through the first three years I had no real notion how computer science and biology might fit together, other than ecological modelling, which I was ambivalent about.

I often felt each department considered that I belonged in the other. This was before hard-drives were in personal computers, when computer geeks carried 132-character wide hard copies of their code in purpose-built manilla folders and bioinformatics as a field hadn’t made the impact that would make it known to all biologists.

I’m not sure the biologists knew what to do with me and the computer science department probably wondered what I was doing with them. I didn’t really have any particular plans myself that way, either.

In the final year of I ‘discovered’ molecular biology. My thing. How life worked, as it were. A world of molecules doing things that made life happen. I could see little glimpses of this field bioinformatics in there, too, and taught myself it while working as a computer programmer after my undergraduate studies ended.

I found that I had first learnt more-or-less by rote, then eventually exploring, critiquing and creating the sort of stuff I’d once learnt. It’s just a different sort of learning, one where you know the bits in front of your aren’t necessarily right. There’s a putting together of pieces, winnowing out junk as you go. Reading widely, picking out clues. Seeing what might fit with what, meanwhile trying to see how you might set up a computational study to test it. It’s puzzle, wanting to know how that thing works. That’s what drives me in science.

There are days I wish I could be paid to just read and write, putting together what is pouring out of the journals. Writing review papers, perhaps, or accounts of research for a wider audience. With the writing you get to explore topics that interest, although you compromise that with that most often you’re not working at a depth that really has you putting pieces together. It’s a more than fair compromise, in my opinion. It’s a lot fun discovering what’s new in the research literature.

But exploring what might be learnt from data—and writing algorithms—is a bug too.

Algorithms are a different kind of bug, one perhaps closer to the painting I liked as a kid – creating something. It’ll sound snobbish to a biologist but good code, the stuff well above what merely ‘works’, is art. There’s craft there, not just mathematical-type thinking.

An approach I like the notion of, that binds all these (with compromises, of course – that’s real life) is to probe an area, reading it in depth, then develop algorithms as tools to explore it, apply them and, finally, write about it all. A sort of utopia I suspect you can’t get past grant committees. But let’s just not get me started on that.

Let’s stick to this - how did you get your start, what motivated you then and what motivates you now?

A few words is fine – you don’t have to be as long-winded as me!


* Including the science community itself – it’s good to see you’re not the only one with a particular view or whatnot.

Other articles on Code for life:

Career motivations (video)

Advice for students heading to university

Teaching students to write scientific papers

What do you want in a Head-of-Department?

Retrospective–The mythology of bioinformatics