Why Scientists do what they Do

When you try to visualize what a scientist looks like and what a scientist does on a day to day basis what comes to mind?  You may picture a person in a white lab coat pipetting a tiny amount of liquid, peering through a microscope, or operating some type of foreign looking machine in a small, dark, old room.  You may also think of someone staring into a computer screen while making graphs, tables, charts, and figures out of large amounts of data that the vast majority of us cannot even begin to understand.  Pop culture tends to portray scientists as individuals who are of high intellect but are otherwise out of touch, unemotional, uncool, rigid, and over analytical (think Sheldon on the CBS sitcom Big Bang Theory).   What probably does not immediately come to mind when you try to picture a scientist is an artist, entrepreneur, story teller, adventurer, or businessman!  However, these descriptors are just a few of many that apply to many scientific researchers:

Passionate ~ Discovery ~ Explorers ~ Love of Learning ~ Artists ~ Creative ~ Independent     Entrepreneurs ~ Communicators ~ Curious ~ Higher Purpose ~ Contributing to Greater Good               Idea Generators ~ Problem Solvers ~ Story Tellers ~ Businessmen ~ Persuasive Teachers ~ Tireless Dedicated ~ Perseverant ~ Deep/Insightful Thinkers ~ Imaginative ~ Competitors

In my last post, “The Plight of the Post Doc” I outlined many of the sacrifices a post doctoral researcher makes and the obstacles they must contend with to maximize their chances of transitioning into a research faculty position and then turning that into a successful academic career.  At the end of the article I questioned why anyone would want to pursue a career in basic science research when the pay is so little, the job security is so poor, and the demands are so high. 

Scientists are more than just nerds in lab coats.

Scientists are more than just nerds in lab coats.

There are many reasons why people are drawn to careers in scientific research and the answers are different for everyone, yet with a closer examination there are several characteristics common to the majority of scientific researchers including:

  1. Following your Passions:  Think about something that you are very passionate about, so much so that some of your friends and family may think you are borderline obsessive.  When you think about what this obsession is, some type of hobby, leisure time activity, or sports team probably comes to your mind.  One of the last things to come to your mind is probably your job.  On the other hand, for many scientists, their passion is their work!  There aren’t many jobs out there that allow you to combine your passions with your work but that is exactly what a career in research can be. 
  2. Becoming an Adventurer/Explorer:  The thrill of the hunt, the beauty of a newly found lake or stream, a new city to explore, or a country to visit.  All of these activities garner excitement and part of this excitement comes from discovering something previously unknown to you.  For a scientist, completing and analyzing the results of a recent experiment can be as exciting and exhilarating as discovering something new.  Sometimes when the scientific discovery is novel and substantial enough, it establishes an entirely new frontier of human knowledge.  You are not only discovering something new to you but something that is new to everyone ON PLANET EARTH!
  3. Life Long Learning:  Learning does not or should not stop at the end of high school, college, or midway through your career.  Researchers never need to worry about their jobs being repetitive and boring because there will never be a time in their careers where they know everything they need to know,  because that does not exist.  As a researcher you are constantly being challenged and if you do not adapt you will be left behind.  Basic science research also allows you to follow your curiosity, ask thought provoking questions, and seek answers to why things are the way they are.  This curiosity extends well beyond the borders of research labs, spilling over into numerous facets of life.  The majority of scientists are really interesting people.  They oftentimes are highly interested in, and educated on, world events, local happenings, and other cultures (science is very ethnically diverse).
  4. Being an Artist:  Art and science are typically thought of as being on the opposite ends of the spectrum when in reality they are oftentimes a blend of one another.  Creativity, control of one’s work, and independence are all characteristics that you might associate with art, but you can also associate them with science.  Science requires you to be creative in your experimental design, development of new ideas, and sometimes even in your explanations of new data.  You also generally have control of your own work.  One of the biggest complaints that artists have is that the studio has the last say in what their product is going to look like.  Basic research scientists do have a peer review process for publication and a rigorous review process for grant funding, however, their work is first and foremost dependent on the direction they want to take it.  Of course, it almost always comes back to someone else providing the support for you to complete that work, but the idea is of your own creation. 
  5. Being an Entrepreneur:  The ability to take risks and the willingness to fail and start over are traits of most scientists.  So many of the things you attempt to do, or ideas that you think are a home run, are going to end in failure.  You must have the ability to persevere and try and try again until it works for you.  In science there is also a great deal of competition.  As in the highest levels of sport, you are competing against some of the very best and brightest minds in the world.  There is no such thing as a big fish in a small pond.  In science there is only one very large pond and that pond includes scientists spread across the United States and in countries around the world such as Australia, Korea, Japan, Canada, England, France, Sweden, and South Africa.  If competition and the race to discover something new before someone else excites you, then science may be appealing to you. 
  6. Communicating and Teaching:  For people who like to communicate, teach, and share ideas, basic science research regularly provides these opportunities.  Scientists have numerous opportunities to share their knowledge in professional and community presentations, classrooms, small group discussions, and in the written word.  Basic science researchers must also be able to “tell a good story,” not only to sell their ideas in the first place, but to explain the impact and importance of them after their results become clear.  Admittedly, this is one area in which many scientists struggle.  Even the best thinkers and writers sometimes struggle to make the transition to good oral communication, particularly if you are shy or working in a foreign country.  However, good communication is the key to helping others understand what you are so passionate about and appreciate why it is important, so you will find that that most successful and respected scientists are those that are the best story tellers
  7. Contributing to the Greater Good:  Today’s problems will be tomorrow’s solutions with the help of good scientific research.  There is a higher sense of purpose in knowing that your work will one day contribute to the curing of disease, understanding of a physiological phenomenon, or improve someone’s quality of life.  Along with contributing to the greater good, there is also a sense of community and respect among researchers.  Whether you are an epilepsy, obesity, sex hormone, or cancer researcher there are many opportunities to get together with other people that are equally as passionate about the science as you are and share ideas, criticisms, and advice about one another’s work to strengthen the potential for future discovery and breakthrough.  It is very fulfilling and rewarding to be able to communicate with other like-minded and passionate individuals.

 Colleges love to talk about how their diverse set of curricula helps to develop a well rounded education and worldview by exposing their students to a variety of topics that they otherwise would not be exposed to.  While this is true, going to school to become a scientist accomplishes this goal to a far greater degree.  Graduate school and scientific research teaches you how to think.  It requires you to develop the thought process and thought patterns to analyze almost any situation you may come across in life.  Your ability to analyze, dissect, and improve upon not only scientific research but pretty much any topic in the world (even if you don’t completely understand it) is an invaluable skill to have.  Basic science researchers practice their craft (analytical thinking) every day and are quite good at it.  Although most people are not aware of the broad skill set that scientists have outside of their expertise in a specific discipline, I feel it is important to recognize the many other aspects to their training and profession that can translate to outside careers. 

There are multiple reasons why I personally no longer have a desire to pursue a career in scientific research, but I know that keeping up with and disseminating the findings of new and exciting research studies will be a key to my future success in the health and fitness industry.  I know many people (myself included) cannot understand why some people would take up such a career with all of the associated pressure, stress, and struggles to succeed.  However, it is important to remember that scientists are more than just nerds in lab coats working in dark rooms on obscure facts.  They are super talented and hardworking people who are generating our knowledge of the universe surrounding us, whether it is space, earth, biology, physiology or a myriad of other specialties within the sciences.  So, whether or not you think someone is crazy for choosing a career in scientific research, stop and think about all of the contributions they have made to the world around you.  It is definitely more than meets the eye, and is a profession that should be highly respected even though it is often misunderstood.


Todd M. Weber PhD, MS, RD