On Shaky Ground

Credit: Hidde de Vries

"Research is said to be like an earthquake: unpredictable, a little scary, but when the hard part is over, you realize how lucky you truly are." -- Anonymous

Just a few seconds after the shaking had subsided, I met a colleague who was nearing the end of her Ph.D. She was running toward her office. I assumed she planned to grab her cell phone off her desk so that she could check on her loved ones, but I learned later that she was looking to protect different loved ones: her thesis and data. She grabbed her data files and her personal computer and left the building.

Like an earthquake of sufficient strength, science will yield both victims and survivors.

Her reaction made me wonder whether she had planned this, or whether, instead, hers was a primitive reflex aimed at protecting what she valued most. If it was the former, I wondered what contingency plans she had made for the other surprises she, as a scientist, was likely to encounter, because science is a contingent business.

Like an earthquake, research is unpredictable. So is employment in science: Right now, long-term employment prospects for postdocs do not look promising. Researchers must learn to live with uncertainty, certainly, but it's much more than that. We need to learn to wallow in uncertainty, to embrace it. It is our prime motivation, what we wake up for in the morning, the thing that keeps us going. Not knowing is the very foundation of what we do, but not everyone can live with such insecurity.

Yassar Alamri (CREDIT: Courtesy, Yassar Alamri)

Just like an earthquake, research is scary. Just about anything can ruin a researcher's project. From declined grant applications to uncooperative supervisors to natural disasters (yes, it happens!), you can never be sure if the hurdle you are facing will be your last (one way or the other) or whether there is more to come. And then there is the social uncertainty; for researchers from physician-scientist programs, like me, there is a sense of not belonging anywhere: The science community sees you as the "overqualified doctor" whose main concern is the clinical applications of research. The medical community sees you as the social-phobic classmate who prefers lab animals to human patients. Many scientists, especially those with an interdisciplinary bent, have similar issues.

Like an earthquake of sufficient strength, science will yield both victims and survivors. In science, the victims might not lose their lives per se, but they can certainly lose their livelihoods. I doubt very many people choose to leave science because of science's inherent uncertainty; if they did not deal well with uncertainty, they never would have chosen this profession in the first place. More often, I think, it is the possibility of losing what they love that pushes them away. Interest remains high, but opportunities to remain in science and to advance in their careers are just too hard to see; there are only so many faculty appointments after all! If they knew they would be able to continue doing science forever, they would probably never leave.

And many of us do not leave. We see how uncertain a future in science can be, do what we can to improve our odds, hold our data close, and keep working. Science survivors -- those who make it through -- hopefully realize how lucky they are to have persevered through some of the most challenging professional hurdles, to have met people who share the same scientific curiosity, and to have participated in the betterment of human welfare and life. Knowing you have contributed to human knowledge, be it in a small or a large way, is an immensely and deeply rewarding feeling. We researchers -- those of us who stick it out -- are happy to endure the uncertainty and hardship for such a satisfying experience. All we ask is to be able to keep working, though we do hope someday to achieve some stability.

The earthquake was later confirmed to be of magnitude 6.3 on the Richter scale -- less intense than the one that occurred on September of the previous year -- and the same intensity as the one that followed this past June. But the February quake was by far the most devastating; it was the costliest, worst disaster in New Zealand's history. The current toll stands at 181 confirmed deaths. The remains of some missing persons still have not been found.

On a brighter note, my colleague's thesis and data were just fine. She submitted her thesis a few weeks after the earthquake. She and her loved ones are now ready to take the next step.

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Credit: Hidde de Vries

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