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Most Likely to Secede

Credit: Photo by Dan Koestler

I don't mean to brag, but in sixth grade I won the Science Award for Mrs. Lukoff's class. Lest you think the prize frivolous, I should stress that this honor -- accompanied, of course, by a certificate printed using the ultramodern Brøderbund Print Shop -- brought me legitimate notoriety among my classmates. They all paid close attention at the awards ceremony because, according to time-honored tradition, the recipient of the Science Award gets beaten up.

Someday, I thought while being stuffed into a trash can, I'll be a big, bad scientist. Then they'll all see.

We thought we would rule the world. Then we got actual science careers.

I'll stand at a podium to receive my Nobel Prize. "Citizens of the world!" I'll announce. "People who used to beat me up! Hear me, for I have discovered a universal cure for all diseases! And would you like to know what it is?"

"Yes, O Wise Scientist!" the masses will cry. "Please tell us! We would like to learn your universal cure!"

That's when I'll smile. "Yeah," I'll say. "I bet you would."

Growing up, we were the smart ones. We were the valedictorians and the science fair champs, the celebrated nerds who read books for fun and asked for extra homework. Even in college, the brainy kids majored in science and engineering, and the kids who couldn't do math studied economics.

We thought we were the only ones taking this education thing seriously. We thought we would conquer hunger and save the planet and see our names etched among the luminaries -- or, at the very least, that we would design a computer capable of providing bizarrely off-topic responses on Jeopardy!

We thought we would rule the world. Then we got actual science careers.

I realized recently that if I examine it in a day-to-day sense, I have one job in science. It's not curing malaria, which is what my grant says it should be. My job, in essence, is to move small amounts of liquid from one place to another. That's it.

That's it? This is what smart people do? This is our reward for withstanding years in the trash can?

Most of us can't boast about the accomplishments for which we dreamed of being revered. If you ever want to see scientists get nervous, ask them how many actual lives their research has saved or improved. They'll say something like, "Um, ... that's not really ... uh ... what my research is about."

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama spoke of the need to educate children in science so as to compete with Chinese children, most of whom have Ph.D.s by age 5. It was interesting to witness the American response, as a challenged nation rose and collectively declared, "We don't need to compete with Chinese kids intellectually because we can beat them up instead, which we'll do when we're finished watching The Bachelor. Pass the Chex Mix."

It may be helpful to explore how we scientists arrived at our careers, starting from the beginning. Here, then, are the thoughts of a developing scientist throughout the education process, along with the science questions explored at each age:

A scientist in preschool: Yet again, the triangle-shaped block fits into the triangle-shaped hole. Fascinating. Analysis will likely reveal statistical significance regarding this fact, but first I should further explore the block's properties by attempting to eat it.

Science questions explored: How are plants different from animals? What are the parts of the body? How does food become solid waste? Which other child has a head made out of solid waste? What rhyming chants should accompany such an accusation?

A scientist in elementary school: This week, a man came to our school and talked about science. He wore a white coat, brought lots of gadgets, and made things explode and freeze. He must be the coolest man in the world! How does he know so much? I'll bet he has tons of friends. When I grow up, I want to be just like him, except maybe not with that weird moustache.

Science questions explored: How do tadpoles develop into frogs? How do butterflies -- hmm, it looks like we should go back to the tadpole-frog thing for another few weeks because you kids don't seem to be getting it. Ok, the tadpole -- can we pay attention, please? Eyes up front. Could we please stop throwing the tadpoles? I'll wait.

A scientist in middle school: Some of my classmates seem to have gotten large and confident very quickly. And the kids with the most friends are the ones who think science is lame. But I want friends. And I don't think science is lame. Ah, the eternal question: WWDHD? ("What would Don Herbert do?")1

Science questions explored: What is the difference between "weight" and "mass," and why won't you understand it no matter how many times it's explained? What is static electricity, and why won't you understand it no matter how many times it's explained? What is a hypothesis, and why won't you understand it no matter how many times it's explained?

A scientist in high school: The kids who beat me up last year are gone. They're off working or smoking things or being pregnant, while I get to take AP physics and learn how far a cube would travel up a frictionless incline when propelled by a spring. Important stuff! Hey, I even joined the Science Club, which seems to exist only to assure us that we socially rank above the Math Club. Except that most of us are also in the Math Club.

Science questions explored: How did human beings evolve? Just kidding. Your parents would kill me if I taught that. Let's just draw some more Lewis dot structures.

A scientist in college: Actual science researchers are teaching me actual science, and I get to take actual lab classes and wear actual goggles! Now I'm finally doing real experiments asking real questions -- provided those questions can be answered using scientific equipment from 1978. (Incidentally, that's a neat volumetric flask. Oh, I see, it holds 500 mL of water. I wonder whether that means it'll hold 500 mL of beer. Go science!)

Science questions explored: Why is Orgo at 8:00 a.m.?

A scientist in grad school: Uh ... uh-oh. I thought I knew what science was, but I was dead wrong. Apparently "science" means "work," and in grad school, it means "work for which I'm scarcely paid." Hello, high school acquaintance at my 10-year reunion! Oh, you work in finance? Neat. Wait, you have how many houses? Wait, your spouse is how hot? Me? Well, unlike you, I'm smart. So I work 14-hour days and make $15,000 a year. Because I'm smart. Stop laughing.

Science questions explored: Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy???????????

Postdoctoral fellowship: Seriously? I survived 7 years of grad school, and I'm still not a scientist?

Science questions explored: Seriously?

* * *

I put little stickers on several hundred vials this morning. That was my morning. Diseases cured: zero. Vials with little stickers on them: several hundred.

One accepts a certain amount of drudgery as the price of performing world-changing science. After all, it's called "lab work," not "lab fun." (Although it would be awesome to be able to say, "I did 5 hours of lab fun this afternoon!")

But at some point, we let the slog replace the dream, and we stop thinking of ourselves as thinkers, even advertising ourselves to potential employers by listing the techniques we've mastered rather than the problems we fantasize about solving. The high-minded ideals of science devolve, for many of us, into days and weeks of the liquid handling and button pressing we've been trained to perform.

Most of our work is meaningful, so when we find ourselves focused so intently that the details become the work, we need to take a step back. Recall the joy of playing with the triangle-shaped block, picturing a frictionless incline, or learning about the metamorphosis those tadpoles would undergo if only our classmates would stop throwing them. Remind ourselves that, in many important ways, our jobs do resemble our dreams, with the exception that we can now fill volumetric flasks with more expensive beer.

So the next time you have a long session of sample gathering, data processing, or, um, robot-being-like, ask yourself what would have fascinated you, as a preschooler, about your current work. Remind that preschooler that you're now a big, bad scientist -- dream accomplished -- and even if your day-to-day work isn't as glamorous as you'd hoped, you still have something to feel satisfied about the next time a colleague stuffs you in the biohazard bin.


1 The answer, of course, is that he would perform an experiment about surface tension in a fish tank in his kitchen, or he'd take apart an Atari joystick, and a neighborhood child would wander into his house and ask, "What are you working on, Mr. Wizard?" which was always a little creepy.