Science Hero

Photo: Back to the Future

Your favorite movie shows scientists as otherworldly geniuses, obsessed with some technology that will inevitably turn them into octopus monsters. The sitcom that’s always on when you get home from work features characters who can create supernatural technology in a few minutes, but are completely antisocial. The weekly news magazine on your coffee table proclaims the greatness of a dude in a lab coat, tirelessly science-ing away so that you can live in a world free of cancer and/or AIDS. From the mass media to your high school teachers, everyone seems to think that scientists are a world apart — brilliant, eccentric, and responsible for all the cool stuff that makes the modern world work.

And you bought it. Hook, line, and sinker.

For most of the decade after high school, I bounced around aimlessly, working almost 20 different jobs, and wandering through 3 different colleges just to eventually achieve one bachelor’s degree. I also went through several episodes of depression and my physical health varied between “ready for tryouts” and “stairs may prove fatal.” Like many (most?) people, I had no idea what meaningful thing I could do with my life.

Sprinkled around that section of time were hints of the direction I would eventually turn. Though my college major was in linguistics, I checked out books on biology from the local library. Like, for fun. They had more in-depth material at a local college library, so I borrowed books from them too. I read about cancer cells. And it wasn’t just biology, either. I consumed books on physics and math, all without any in-person guidance. I didn’t understand those books, but, you know, I read them. I was fascinated by this body of knowledge that had allowed human beings to see invisible parts of the world, and to build once-impossible things. And it wasn’t just the knowledge itself that impressed me. I was in awe of the people who figured it all out — actually learning from nature, when all I could do was stare at it.

Eventually, I got antsy, and while I was working at a call center, I went back to college to get a second bachelor’s degree, this time with a major in biology. Having a degree already, the second one took a little over 2 years. I got a little experience in a lab, helping a professor prepare bacteria for classroom experiments. I took the GRE, the standardized test for grad school applicants, and scored very well. That was it! I was ready to finally make a destiny for myself.

I was ready to be a scientist.

So I applied for a dozen PhD programs in biology, was admitted to two of them, and enrolled at my favorite. I started working in a university lab, which is both a salary-paying job and the biggest component of the PhD program. I recognized some differences from my previous jobs right away. One of the first things I noticed is the number of refrigerators. Huge amounts of space are taken up by glorified fridges and freezers, set to the optimal storage temperatures of various types of goo (biological materials like bacteria or tissue samples). There are also plenty of incubators, which is to say glorified heaters. Their temperatures are set for the optimal growth of various types of goo. Every lab has a PCR machine (or seven) as well. PCR is a technique for copying a piece of DNA a massive number of times, based on a natural process which is so cool it’s basically magic. The PCR machine, however, is simply a device that heats and then cools a small tube of goo in order to maximize that process — so temperature control, again. Add in the centrifuges (separating different types of goo), spectrophotometers (measuring the thickness of goo), microscopes (looking at goo), and other devices, and you’ve got many thousands of dollars in goo-wrangling equipment at your disposal.

Overall, though, there are many more similarities than differences between lab work and call center work. Your work experience varies wildly depending on who you get stuck working for. They might be terrible. You have a loose team of coworkers, all with different levels of experience and different attitudes about the job. Some of them might be terrible too. Sometimes it’s you that’s terrible. Big plans from management might fizzle out, or you might wish they did. Administrative paperwork takes up unreasonable amounts of time. You occasionally spend a ton of effort on a task that turns out to be entirely pointless. Any meeting with free food is welcome, and any meeting with no food is the worst one you’ve ever been in. Sometimes you’re late for work. Sometimes you don’t care. Everyone gets lazy when nobody’s looking.

I had thought that scientists were among those rare people who were doing things right, while the rest of us just muddled along. I had seen too many movies. Turns out, professional scientific researchers can be distressingly normal. An example: scientists spend a lot of time on the internet, and just like everyone else with access to it, they are not very productive there. I have seen more cat videos since I started grad school than I ever knew existed. I’ve watched a lot of so-bad-it’s-good music videos with my coworkers. Another good way to spend break time (and work time) is Kerbal Space Program, a game where you build your own rocket, flown by a little green guy. Watching your friends repeatedly fail at that game is HYSTERICAL. Five professional scientists standing around a university-owned computer, laughing like maniacs, while thousands of dollars in lab equipment sits idle, waiting for us to cure cancer with it. Not gonna happen today.

As far as having an overly fiction-based idea of how scientists work, I know I’m not the only one. Some (only some!) scientists actually pride themselves on their social ineptitude. For this select group, it’s like a status symbol, reverse engineered from the same nerdy stereotypes that we’ve all seen in movies and TV shows. “Look how into science I am, I’ve got no time for your mortal concerns.” For most though, it’s simply neglect. Funding agencies and university administrators have seen those movies too, and they assume that professional scientists are myopically focused on their own work, have poor people skills, and are terrible managers. If one of these flaws come up, it’s ignored instead of discouraged. (When it occurs, that part about being terrible managers is very bad for grad students and non-boss researchers, by the way.) Nothing other than high-profile science is expected from them, so that’s all they give.

If you want to do that high-profile work, it means getting high-profile grants. By necessity, the big boss of a university lab spends much of their time asking NIH or NSF for money. As I understand it, the rule is that you must use the word “cancer” in your grant proposal at least 3 times. Your work will be funded in proportion to how believable that lie is — that is, how plausible it seems to the funding board that your work will contribute to a cure for cancer. Do you study how cells divide? Awesome, cancer. Do you study genetic diseases in corn? It’s a bit of a stretch, but cancer. Do you study populations of naked mole rats? Cancer, why not.

Here’s an under-appreciated fact: All of those studies might actually contribute to our understanding of cancer. They might result in future benefits to human health and well-being that we can’t even guess at now. But individually, no single lab anywhere is going to cure cancer. The days of one guy in a lab coat creating a measles vaccine by himself are long gone, if they ever happened at all. Scientists are all contributing incrementally to huge projects, working on one tiny aspect at a time. The only way anything meaningful is achieved is collaboratively.

That’s one of the reasons it’s possible for us to get so lazy. A hiccup in your individual effort is not going to bring the whole system crashing down — there are 50 other people with PhDs working on the same subfield of a subfield as you are. When you learn how small a cog you are in the great machine of science, it is simultaneously a relief and the seed of a larger problem. If your work habits are not a matter of immediate, visible consequence to anyone else, then of course you’re going to give yourself some slack occasionally. When all 50 people in your subfield follow the same logic, though, the entire system runs slow, and mistakes and delays become a permanent fact of life. It’s tragic at a certain level, but unavoidable: we’re humans with the same psychology as other small cogs, and all human systems reflect human flaws. Even science.

One the other hand, look what that system can do! Slow and unsteady as it is, this system for doing science has made enormous contributions to our world. Nearly every winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been a part of that system. All those cures and treatments which they produced have been made in that system. That example is a reflection of my own scientific interest as a biologist, but the same can be said for the Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry and Economics as well, and plenty of other great work that never got Nobel Prize-level famous. (Side note — The Nobel Prize is not an adequate gauge of any scientist’s work. It’s just really convenient for a lazy writer like myself.) Being even a small contributor to that massive endeavor is an honor.

In fact, despite all the shattering of my illusions about scientists existing on some higher plane of existence, I really did find what I was looking for. If I’m lucky, I might be able to keep working on scientific projects for another 30 or 35 years. When I was looking at decades-level time like that at my previous jobs — well, I quit those jobs, so I guess that says it all. When I think about working in science for the rest of my life, a weird feeling comes over me. I suspect it might be happiness. For me, this is meaningful work, and I’m glad I finally found my way into it.

One relatively minor concern: I have developed a bad case of imposter syndrome, the main occupational hazard of grad students, professional scientists, and academics of all fields. I constantly feel like I don’t deserve to be here doing this awesome job, that my work is sub-par, and that if everybody knew how lazy I am, they would exile me back to my first 20 jobs. The thinking part of my brain knows this feeling is untrue. I can’t help it, though — the gap between the reality of what I do and what I’m supposed to do as a “scientist” is just too great. I’m still judging myself against the standard of some genius who spends every waking moment trying to improve the human condition. That popular but entirely fictional character, from movies and magazines and guilt, is still in my head, living in my imagination.

You see, we’re human beings after all. I had to literally become a scientist before I realized that. All that propaganda that convinced you that scientists are some special class of smarties? Lies. All those glowing news stories about the latest advancements in medicine, all thanks to this scientific hero? Lies — at least the hero part. That urge to scream at your local scientist, “You’re supposed to be curing cancer, not playing Kerbal, dammit, get back to work!” That isn’t a lie, but it is based on one. It’s based on the false belief that people doing science are psychologically different than others, because their job is more potentially important. Unfortunately, the world of science populated by ultra-smart, ultra-driven, ultra-capable obsessives is a fantasy. In reality, the clunky, flawed, human industry of science slowly rolls on.

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