There is more to it than science

January 5, 2017

Dr. Janice Nigro, Filipodia Editor


I sometimes think that being a scientist is one of those ancient career ideas that we dress up with modern technology. What we do is basic to human nature-explore our physical and natural world.


We tend to forget that our job is to discover in our so-called modernization of the profession. We rush to publish papers or write grants just to keep our jobs.


Once in a while, I have to step back and remember what my reasons were/are for becoming a scientist. More important is what kind of message I give to the people I work with or who are training under me. As an editor, I feel my job is as much about teaching as it is about helping people organize any single article. I too am a guardian of their passion.


A tremendous amount of criticism seems to come out of me for any individual article I edit though. Red is everywhere. For that reason, I thought for the first post of the year, I would remind myself of all that is valuable about our training-what being a scientist can give you, if you are willing to take it.


You are your own boss. From the beginning, there is no one telling you what to do. You are an entrepreneur. You choose the questions you want to pursue over your life time, and you generate the atmosphere of your work environment. Will you go down a conventional path or make your own? How will you challenge your students, postdocs, and colleagues? In the end, through your body of work and your execution of it, others will see what really drives you.


No fear of the unknown. The basic premise of the profession is to discover what is not known. You thrive on choosing important questions that do not yet have answers. You know that reaching an endpoint may take time, that the glory in achieving a goal is something you must have the patience to wait for (years sometimes).


We are lifetime students. Having the time to learn anything that you want is a tremendous luxury that is most often limited to that period of our life as university students. There you learn how to learn. As a scientist, that’s your life! We incorporate new strategies and ideas into our work as easily as we might research travel to a country we have never before visited.


We think creatively. Most people think of scientists as using their brains more in a left brain, analytical, logical way, but we also think creatively. We read facts and assemble them so they become something new. The thinking behind a simple protocol such as PCR or the genius behind CRISPR was creative as well as revolutionizing. In our efforts to standardize scientific success or to measure productivity using numbers, this fundamental principle driving scientific progress might be more easily lost in the way we educate and review the work of others today.


Public speaking is routine. Public speaking is subject matter for our nightmares. As scientists, we present our stories in public and often. Our presentations are more than just stories to tell. They are the public defense of our work, and the success of a presentation can be measured by the questions it provokes. Presentations thus help you to identify the strengths and the weaknesses of your work. Furthermore, what works in a presentation might also work well when you sit down to write the corresponding manuscript. So if asked, be more than willing to present even though it might be terrifying to do so.


We are published authors. Like writers or journalists, our work is published and read by others. We have perhaps taken the idea of publishing (or perishing) and its significance in our career development to an extreme. Nevertheless, once an article is in print, it is a part of history. We will see our bylines in journals or online, a position any struggling writer might envy.


We are artists. Every time we look at a fluorescent image or even a cluster diagram of thousands of data points, we are looking at art. A friend of mine once remarked that she could become an art museum docent because it is what she did all day as a scientist-look at images. We design our experiments so that they tell us something, but there is art in the way they appear. Artful visualization of our work is especially important today, as we work in multidisciplinary teams and more broadly engage the public. Thus, our educational systems in the West, I believe, mistakenly categorize art and science as completely independent disciplines.


We travel the world. A component of any dream job is worldwide travel. As a scientist, there is no avoiding it; the world will come to you or you will go out into it with your degree. Travel might begin as early as when you choose where to get your degree, and it continues as you participate in conferences and develop collaborations. Suddenly you can find yourself in a place you might never have considered visiting. Such experiences importantly provide insight into the challenges facing scientists around the world, making their problems our problems to solve together.


Exceptional people are part of our daily life. Some of the most fascinating people you will ever meet will be other scientists. You must check your ego at the door every day to take advantage of such people who may be your colleagues, your teachers, or your collaborators. I have met truly great thinkers at every step of my career. I found that it is often the humblest ones who are the people you most want to emulate.


Science is as much a way of life as it is a career. The basis for good science is risk-taking, and we are accustomed to failure. Life in general is also a series of risk-taking events with both good and bad outcomes. Whether I am about to do a backward roll for a dive into the sea or baking a cake, it’s an experiment.


For many other reasons, science seems an unlikely career choice. We never know where our research questions will take us. The pay is not requisite with the level of training and the number of hours we put in, and funding resources are extremely competitive. The most difficult aspect might be that the implications of our studies are not necessarily immediate; we might only be setting up future generations to make the real breakthroughs. For this reason, we must preserve our creative and discovery based research in order to educate our future generations of scientists in a meaningful way.


So, while you must perform protocols to reach your scientific goals, maybe we should not let protocols run our science life. Keep this in mind for your own work as well as in the review of the work of others. Good luck in the coming year, and we hope that at we help you to reach at least some of your publishing goals.