What got you into science and what keeps you doing it?

By Grant Jacobs 05/10/2012 10


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!

Footnotes

* 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


10 Responses to “What got you into science and what keeps you doing it?”

  • Two (or three) quick points:

    You don’t have to be in academia!

    (There is a little method in the madness here – paradoxically this relates to my non-academic science posts – the basic underlying motivations can be applied to non-academic things, too.)

    I probably should add a dose of reality somewhere amongst the idealism. What I’ve put down are highlights, of course. Developing code involves tracking down bugs that just persist. Data analysis can involve a fair chunks of time just getting the data into a form you can use. And so. (These aren’t all bad either. Some like the quiet persistence.)

  • What got me into science?
    It is hard to pin point an exact time when science/chemistry “clicked” for me. My first memory of enjoying science was when I received a Pears Encyclopedia when I was about 12. The science section fascinated me – I remember reading about how oak galls we formed and found it amazing. Visiting my grandparents and cousins I could often be found reading my way through the various encyclopedias they had – a Disney one was not only fascinating for the science but also for technology, mythology, geography.
    At school science was interesting, and I found the patterns and order in organic chemistry easy to understand and enjoyable.
    I didn’t pursue medicine because I have an aversion to blood, and went to the closest university, Massey. My intention was to double major in chemistry and computing but I found the first year programming course appallingly bad (>30% dropped out) and programming bothered me in that a single hard to find error would stop your program from running. While I have a good eye for detail, pawing over code to find errors does not ring my bells.
    2nd year biochem didn’t go particularly well, whereas chemistry enthralled me. And interest in medicinal drugs lead me into organic chemistry.

    What keeps me involved with science/chemistry?
    It is fascinating (I keep using that word because it is the best one to describe science) and it is useful. Not only for its applications but for the thinking skills that (should) come with it. Over the years I’ve expanded my interests since then from just chemistry. I find psychology fascinating, biology connects so much with the types of chemistry I like, I’ve always enjoyed maths (I love patterns and analysis). I apply my “scientific” skills to virtually everything I do – teaching, management , admin etc.
    I think science, in it’s widest definition, is our best hope of the human race moving forward, avoiding disaster, and thriving.

  • (To everyone and no-one in particular.) In hindsight I should have put “Has it changed over the years?” in the title, as it’s something that interests me. But just write whatever suits!

  • Nice grant…I too am fascinated with motivations, especially as mine have changed/maturedover the years. I’ve been meaning to blog on this for a while, so you have given me a kick…I shall now try and carveout some time to write. In short, though, my original motivation was “because I was best at it.” I am motivated now by moreof ba sense of responsibility and calling.

  • Michael:

    My parents bought a Pears Encyclopaedia too. As kids I think a fair few of our books were via the publisher of Dad’s books (before he set up Kowhai to publish his work, at least).

    I wanted to do medicine, but some senior medical academic advised me that I wouldn’t be ‘allowed’ to because of my poor hearing, saying I wouldn’t be allowed to do some of the sections necessary to qualify. Looking back I’m not sure if that advice was ever correct, but I wonder if deaf or hard-or-hearing students are allowed to do medicine in NZ (now) – anyone? It does go to show how easy it is for someone with ‘authority’ to derail some kid’s wishes, though.

    For what it’s worth, in my experience a key to accurate programming is proactive testing, as part of the development process, rather than retrospective patches. It’s quite a different approach, one I prefer (given a choice!).

    I’ve wandered into neuroscience myself, partly as there are wonderful opportunities to link computational biology with genetics, molecular biology, neurology and higher-order brain function, etc. I haven’t really had a good opportunity to put this to use, however, so at the moment it remains a side interest.

  • What got me into science? Well, at least into medicine.

    I was born into the working classes in the UK; none of my family had ever had any form of tertiary education. My ancestors were mill-workers from the industrial revolution and agricultural labourers from further back. That’s not a great start in life for anybody.

    My parents wanted me to get out from the poverty cycle and encouraged me to read from an early age. They encouraged at least 15 minutes reading every day, it didn’t matter what the reading material was. I was reading and writing by four years old.

    We couldn’t afford books, but I remember having my own library ticket at the age of four. I probably had one earlier but don’t remember it. I was at the library every week. Since the town museum was in the same building as the library I would get a couple of books and then spend an hour or so in the museum. It may have been that my drive to read came from the desire to read the labels on exhibits in the museum!

    As I grew, my main books became science fiction. I could lose myself in tales of the future and extrapolate from the Apollo program that was running at the same time. I wanted to explore the planets in person and couldn’t see why it wasn’t possible.

    I started to read the real science behind space exploration. I went on to cover the subjects in the museum attached to the library: archaeology, astronomy, biology, technology, geology, geography, physics, history, evolution(!)… Encyclopaedia volumes borrowed from the library were commonly found in my room at home.

    At school, I Initially took languages, arts and religion. Science was the fun stuff I read at home! Then one teacher imparted my greatest lesson. Co-incidentally, he was an ordained catholic priest. The lesson (paraphrased) was: “Question everything, including the Bible. Truth can be found in the Bible, the Qur’an and the writings of Buddha, but none of them are the truth by themselves. Find truth by asking the right questions.” It may have been a philosophical position, but it applied well to my reading of the sciences.

    I came to New Zealand with my parents and switched to science and maths at school. Science and maths were my way of continuing to ask the right questions. I had discovered what I now recognise to be the scientific method.

    My strongest subjects at school were the biological sciences; I went to Otago to attempt to do medicine with a backup idea of chemistry. I was fortunate enough to gain my double degree in medicine and surgery.

    I’m not a researcher, although I have previously published in peer reviewed journals. I now work as a generalist on the front line of health. That means that I have to keep asking the questions, I have to keep looking for the answers in order to do the best I can for my patients.

    Am I a scientist? I think that I am. I may not be doing cutting edge research, but I have to follow scientific reasoning to be able to do my best.

    I’m not just a generalist in health, I’m a scientific generalist as well. My viewpoint is that to be an good parent I have to be able to teach my children. That means keeping up with research as much as possible and being honest (“no, I don’t know the answer to that, but lets see if we can find an answer together”). It’s also fun to keep up to date with other fields!

    I’ve raised two children. They are both scientific generalists as well. My proudest accomplishment is that whenever either of them encounters a problem their only approach to solving the problem is by adopting scientific methodology.

    I heartily agree with Michael, that science is the best way for humans to continue to thrive. I would add that history shows that we have tried many other ways in the past, but science is the only way that has actually worked.

  • I found it fairly late. Went through uni, did computer science. Wasn’t really enthused with anything in particular. Spent a few years in the workforce routinely getting a job and being bored to tears within 3-6 months, after I had learned whatever I needed to know. Came back to uni to do a masters (couldn’t think of anything better to do), one of my comp sci lecturers was also the bioinformatics lecturer at the time.
    Fell sideways into biology and a couple of years later looked up and found that I still wasn’t bored. And even better, that there was still a whole bunch of interesting stuff I hadn’t even started to look at. So I switched to biology and here I am still.

  • Thanks for the contributions Stuart and Ben.

    Ben,

    There’s an adage, something to the effect that a scientist is a perpetual student – there’s always more to learn.

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