My parents have recently moved house and in the process of downsizing have shipped me some of my old stuff (books, old report cards, photos). It has been very interesting going through it, particularly looking at some of the item which I think influenced my choice to become a scientist.
Previously, my fellow blogger Grant Jacobs asked readers “What motivated you to study science?” and readers may offer one or two ideas about why they became a scientist. Here, I’m going to explore various points in my life which I think nudged me towards a scientific career (and a few which could have discouraged it).
I have always been a voracious reader and at the age of about 11 or 12 my parents gave me a Pears Encyclopedia (at the time probably a reasonable substitute for Google). I remember enjoying reading most sections, but the one item that I recall most clearly is reading about how oak galls are formed. I also remember reading one of my mother’s old “Elementary General Science” textbook from high school at an early age. My grandparents also had some wonderful books, and whenever we visited I would often disappear to read books, including a brilliantly illustrated book called something like “Age of Wonder” which showed the many scientific and other breakthroughs as they occurred in the 1920’s and 30’s. I also remember borrowing (for 20+ years) as set of Disney encyclopedias from my cousins for which my favourite volumes were the ones of science and nature, technology, and strangely enough Greek mythology.
An interest in science can be seen in my early school reports from primary and intermediate school. It was fascinating reading these again because I don’t remember seeing them as a child. In standard 2, I was an “always does his best” child but was determined to be “average” with regards to science. In standard 3, I received an “above average” rating for maths and science and the teacher’s comment for science was “very keen”. My reading skills were always “excellent” thanks to many years of practice.
According to my form 2 report, there was a shift from “above average” to “excellent” during this year (the report included mid year grades) for science, social studies and several areas of mathematics, but I can’t remember why this might have happened. Did I get better, or did I do something to get noticed? The most I can remember from that year is entering a crappy crystal growing science fair project and failing to get a perfect mark for a social studies project by titling it “civil defense”.
Around this time, I received what I think was the biggest factor that directed me towards a career in chemistry – my grandparents bought me a “The Mind Alive Encyclopedia – Basic Science” book. This book was beyond the level we had covered in school but not so far that it couldn’t be understood by a 12 year old. Despite its’ title the book focused only on chemistry and physics, and I found the chemistry sections far more interesting, so I have to wonder if this wasn’t a key turning point for my eventual choice of career. Once I got to high school I used the material in the book to complete some of my assessments, which then received good marks likely creating a cycle of positive reinforcement.
I should also point out at this stage that neither of my parents had a particular interest in science – my mother didn’t like it, and because my father was forced to do it for school certificate (or whatever the equivalent was) instead of art, his final exam involved putting his name on the paper and then leaving.This certainly didn’t stop them from supporting my interest in science. Although my mother refused point blank to buy me a chemistry set – instead they bought me a microscope, which I remember having great fun with.
By the time I reached high school it was clear to me that science was the most fascinating subject. My mathematics marks were pretty good as well, which also helped. So when it came time to make course choices, my choice was science across the board. In year 11, for school certificate, for those who wanted to sit a 6th subject the only choice as chemistry, which fitted very nicely into my interests, though with only one class a week, I didn’t do as well as my other subjects scoring a 64%. A 93% in science though made sure I wasn’t discouraged from enrolling in all the sciences the following year.
I should also mention at this stage a fascination with science fiction television programmes (Star Trek, Tomorrow People, Blakes 7 etc) also helped me see the many possibilities that science might provide us with in the future, as well as some of the resulting ethical and social issues.
Looking back it was important that my interest in science was “locked in” before the last two years of high school, as there were events that otherwise could have turned me off. In 6th form certificate I received 1’s for mathematics and religious studies but 2’s for all of the sciences (despite having been top of science the year before). Also, I was quite aware from conversations with my academic rival who was studying economics and accountancy that his marks in these subjects were higher than mine in the sciences (although both of us were topping our respect classes and equally matched in mathematics and English, he become dux for our year). And in year 13 my biology teacher advised me against a career in science, suggesting that medicine, law and accountancy were the best options, a view I think still persists today in some high schools. Sometimes I think adults not only try to play it safe when the give students career advice, they also sometimes underestimate their abilities.
This is just part of my story, so I am cautious in drawing any general conclusions from it, however, my experiences do seem to reflect what we know about interest in science. Most children make the choice to stick with or turn away from science before they get to the last three years of high school. Supportive parents and access to science resources (and role models) from an early age is helpful, as is encouraging children’s natural curiosity.
I would be interested in hearing from others about their own experiences and what the key factors they think were in choosing (or not choosing) a career in science.