Why bother being a scientist?

If you read my previous posts about the imperfections in the practice of the scientific method and the drudgery of obtaining federal grants to fund independent research, you’re probably asking yourself, “Well, why would you bother?!?” We all know what Indiana Jones had to say on the matter, “Fortune and glory, kid… fortune and glory.”* Scientists would answer differently, “Because we love it. It’s what we do.” But, it’s not because we enjoy torturing ourselves.

The system may seem geared toward making us disgruntled skeptics of everything, but deep down we are idealists. Despite the day to day experimental failures and the effort spent begging for money writing grant proposals, we truly believe we are working on problems important to the rest of the world even if it is one small piece at a time. Knowledge is power, right?

We are puzzlers. We like to dig deeper.  We don’t like loose ends. Some may even say that we are obsessive compulsive**. Really, we just never grew out of that four-year-old phase of exhaustively asking “Why? Why! Why?” It isn’t that we just one day became obsessed with a research interest and thought, “I’ll learn everything there is in the world to know about that. Wouldn’t that be something?”  Well, maybe that eventually happened, but first we fell in love with learning- how to solve problems; how to figure it out.

Sometimes our puzzling and perseverance pays off. At some point, we are hovered over a microscope or in a dark room or bleary-eyed at a computer screen and we see a result that creates a spark. (Hopefully not a actual spark because those are bad days in the lab.) A spark of insight appears. A sudden unity of understanding occurs. Even if it was the result our hypothesis would have predicted, it is staring back at us in reality-       affirmation. At that moment, we have unveiled something that brings new knowledge into the realm of human understanding.  For a lot of scientists, that’s the glory we find.

We are the guardians of that knowledge. The scientific method provides integrity and the peer-review process gives justification for what we have discovered. These systems are meant to winnow the truth from our human biases and preserve its purity from our prejudice.

We are the messengers of that knowledge. The new information we’ve uncovered has to leave the walls of the lab or it is meaningless. We have the honor of sharing it with the rest of the world with the hope that some future scientist hovered over a microscope or bleary-eyed at a computer screen will use it to generate their spark and extend our knowledge even further. That, for us, is fortune indeed (especially if we get cited!).


* Thanks to my friend G. Michael Guy for the Indie inspiration.

** That one’s for you Postdoc Street


5 thoughts on “Why bother being a scientist?

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