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.
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:
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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.
Adam Ruben, Ph.D., is a practicing scientist and the author of Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School .