When the sound of my alarm clock wakes me at 7 a.m. on a freezing Saturday morning, I often ask myself: Why am I doing science? At this hour of the day, my friends who are practicing law or management are embracing the warmth of their beds. Maybe my doctor friend is up, but she should not be complaining: She makes much more money than me.
I vividly remember the day I decided to do science. I was in middle school. It was not for a big humanitarian purpose or to eliminate a terrible human disease.
Earth is billions of years old and billions of people have lived here so far, and yet this simple, unhappy-looking graduate student is the first organism in history to know about the interaction between these proteins.
I decided to do science because of a girl I had a crush on. She did not tell me to love science; she was too pretty and popular to even talk to me. But then, one day I was sitting in biology class and my teacher explained that every living being on the face of this earth is the same at the molecular level: We all have A, T, G, and C.
EUREKA!! I learned that Sweetie and I are the same at the molecular level! With this realization, all of the inferior psychology that was harnessed in me was swept away. No other branch of human knowledge is powerful and authentic enough to provide such enlightenment.
Unfortunately, despite our molecular sameness and my newfound self-confidence, I still was unable to get Sweetie's attention. So, I poured whatever love I had for her into biology. Over time, the focus on Sweetie diminished. Others took her place, and the focus on science grew. I realized that I, my super-smart dad, Einstein—all of us are made up of the same basic stuff. The intrinsic tendency of science to treat everybody equally made me realize that science is the most democratic human philosophy.
That was it! I was going to be a scientist!
Fast-forward 14 years. I am in my 6th year of graduate school. I have realized that graduate school is not for everyone. Sometimes it feels like you are pushing a wall. I remember being taught in physics class that if you push a wall hard, all day and the wall does not move then you have done NO work.
On a bad day, graduate school research feels exactly like that. You spend your whole day, and taxpayer money, on a crappy experiment that doesn't work. You have no social circle, no completely free weekends, and no long holidays: Who would take care of your mice or culture your cells? You are expected to work in the lab for 15 hours a day. (You're putting in just 10 hours? You are lazy! How do you think you are going to make it?)
Let's say you make it through and graduate. Will you find a faculty position? You probably will not. Will you find any science research job at all? Good luck with that!
So, why am I still doing this?
The answer, I think, lies in human nature, or in the nature of some humans: Curiosity and exploration are in everyone, but they are more prominent in some than in others. Some are never satisfied with the status quo, and, thanks to them—to us—humanity keeps moving forward. Raw meat was not good enough, so we discovered fire and cooked food. We wanted to move faster, sail farther, and fly higher, so we developed wheels, ships, and planes. Earth was getting boring, so we went to the moon. (How cool was that?! Mars, you are next!) We spend time contemplating big things like galaxies and small things like atoms, and the knowledge we generate helps us answer basic questions, such as: Who are we? Why are we here? We don’t wait for answers; we go and find them.
To an outsider, my life may resemble the dark room where I develop my Western blot x-rays. But think about it: As I develop the x-ray blot, I discover that protein A interacts with protein B; this interaction has implications in some severe human disease. Imagine the euphoria!
Earth is billions of years old and billions of people have lived here so far, and yet this simple, unhappy-looking graduate student is the first organism in history to know about the interaction between these proteins. My eyes are the first to see that spark of knowledge, which soon will be spread across the world like a mesmerizing light. I will own that knowledge forever, and more importantly, the finding will be useful for the well-being of people.
That’s right: We spend thousands of hours in laboratories cranking our brains so that we can bring good to humanity and experience the pleasure of doing so.
We may not be the coolest (although we think we are very cool) or the richest (we know we are not rich), but we generate the knowledge that guides humanity toward progress so that tomorrow is always better than today.
This knowledge keeps me going.
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