Campus Life the secret lives of researchers

Late thoughts on being a research scientist

Persevering through doubts about your career path

I have one of those roommates who is constantly curious, and often tactless, but usually insightful. She waits all of five minutes after I roll out of bed before insisting I explain to her how I perceive my relationship with my mother. Or, she wants to know if I think the app Tinder is morally okay. Most of the time, these questions fall by the wayside while the tea I’m brewing receives my full and undivided attention. However, the other day breakfast was served with a comment that caught my attention.

“Do you think — as a graduate student, as a future research scientist — you are as creative as you could otherwise be? Do you feel it allows you to be your best self?”

I wasn’t immediately sure why, but I thought of something Bob Dylan had said in his elegy to the late, great Woody Guthrie.

And there’s something on yer mind you wanna be saying/That somebody someplace oughta be hearin’/But it’s trapped on yer tongue and sealed in yer head/And it bothers you badly when your layin’ in bed/And no matter how you try you just can’t say it/And yer scared to yer soul you just might forget it.

That’s pretty much the answer though, right? Being human is pain, glory, triumph, and tragedy. Whether we say, or do, or create, or discover, it’s that “something.” And maybe you don’t have the something yet, or maybe you don’t even feel it yet, but it’s there, welling up inside of you and all that could possibly matter is that you can share it, and hopefully make some thing better for someone because of it. Until you find it, until you say it, until you do it, there will always be that haunting fear that you might lose it before anyone else has a chance to hear it.

But that’s the journey. Whatever it is you have to contribute, you’re always searching for the best possible way to channel it. You have to keep searching, keep asking, through which avenue can you be your best self? Through Art? Through Policy? Through Love? Through Science? That’s my path of late; I chose Science. But, no matter what channel, what path, you’ll always wonder. Does this allow me to be creative in a way that can truly affect someone? Will someone ever look at my work and say, “This is Bob Dylan to me, this is the poetry of everything?” Will people feel what I have done, really feel it?

In the day-to-day trenches of research, through the endless paper revisions and through the results that might seem whole galaxies removed from anything practical, I have doubt. Doubt that the coupled solution to another system of PDEs couldn’t possibly be creative. Doubt that quantifying the phenology of sea ice couldn’t possibly improve anybody’s life. But if you persevere long enough to look behind that doubt, there is a rich beauty in research that is so hard to see until you’re actually there.

That’s what I am learning. I am learning how to be my best self, my most creative self, through science and through research. Research is not as obviously creative as other avenues. The tools (the knowledge of continuum mechanics, of carbonate speciation, of whatever it is you might need to know) are not immediately accessible; there is no obvious brush or typewriter. But once you devote the tedious time to develop your skills, the pallet is infinite. Learning all of these tools just provides the pieces needed to even see the puzzle. From there, your entire job is to think of things in ways that no one has ever thought of before, to figure things out that no one has ever understood before. That sounds pretty creative to me.

Though, even at your most creative, it is not trivial to resolve how a young scientist can really affect something. Viewed as a whole, it is easy to see how science is capital “G” Good, in a moral sense of the word, in a way truly Good people would be proud of. Science is the backbone of civil society. But in the deep recesses of your hyper-defined specialization, that can be hard to imagine. At times I struggle to believe my analysis of biogeochemical models of the Southern Ocean is in fact critical to fighting and understanding climate change, as I so boldly implore to NSF. But there are motivations to work past that. Perhaps it’s the sacrifice to something bigger than you, the idea that your small contribution might be a critical, even if unromantic, link in a chain that is part of something monumental. Or perhaps it’s the drive and earnest belief that one day your young and reckless mind will make a paradigm shattering revelation. Whatever it is, believe that what we do is Good, capital “G” Good.

So, yeah, I feel alright about this avenue for me, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t constantly question it. That’s the whole foundation of good science anyway, right? So during the day I’ll try to search for the secrets of the natural world, and at night, I’ll ponder thoughtfully with my roommate, listening to OK Computer on vinyl and trying to reconcile who I am as a person and who I am as a scientist.