Five Reasons I Became a Scientist

I officially became a scientist in 2009 when I joined the staff of the Mitchell Cancer Institute in Mobile, Alabama. As of right now, I've been working in science for over four years. Currently I am working at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. I've been asked questions about being a scientist, the most common being, "What do you do all day?" After all, on television, experiments are done in 90 seconds or less; so what do we do with all of our spare time? We drink coffee. No actually, TV lies. Experiments take days, weeks, and months.

The second most common question is, "How did you decide to become a scientist?" I'll write a little about that.

When I was a senior in college, I didn't know I would teach high school for two years, but I did (see "What Teaching Taught Me"). When I was teaching, I had no idea I would go to graduate school to snatch my PhD; but I did. When I was in graduate school, I had no clue I would work at a fantastic place like St. Jude; but here I am. I am a firm believer that if you excel wherever you are now, better things will open up for you later. 

My lack of planning is important because I didn't become a scientist because I had a lavish career plan I was following. I did it because...

#1 Knowledge is power (advantageous).

The most powerful people in the world are not body-builders or foot soldiers. If supreme world domination ever occurs, it will be orchestrated by people with enough money to hire scientists and engineers to develop the best world-dominating technology. Technology is applied science, literally. Therefore, understanding science means that if/when these people take over the world, they will hire me instead of exterminate me. Okay, I'm kidding.

There are many fields of science, but I chose biology and medicine because they seemed most interesting and relevant to me. Below are brief descriptions of two broad ways that knowledge is power.

A. Understanding the limitations of your body allows you to properly use it without damaging it. 

Why is it important to get enough sleep, drink enough water, consume fiber, eat vegetables, exercise, laugh, and get vaccinated? I have never been good at following orders or suggestions without understanding the "why". So I thought becoming a scientist would help me figure out why for a lot of things, and it has!

B. Understanding the dangers of your environment help you protect your body. 

Understanding viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms is key to living a healthy life. I enjoy having an advantage over these "bugs" by knowing how they operate and taking measures to avoid the pathogenic varieties. But I've also learned I don't need to be afraid of all "germs" because the majority of them are NOT pathogenic.

It's good to know why UV radiation is bad for you, but also that moderate doses of it are beneficial. It's nice to understand the risks associated with exposure to chemicals--being able to read the labels of medications and cleaning products and comprehend how dangerous they really are. It's helpful to know what types of food or beverages can be or definitely are harmful and why.

#2 I don't trust people (skepticism).



I have a hard time trusting people sometimes. I don't think everyone is secretly conspiring to kill me, but I've noticed over the years that if you ask the same question(s) to many people, you can get many different answers. I can't believe them all; so I am skeptical. I raise my eyebrows often and say, "Ooooookay". Like I said, it's not that I think everyone is lying to me; but what if they are accurately transmitting false information? They think they're telling the truth, but they're just passing on bad information. If left unchecked, this will result in droves of people believing things that aren't true just because that's what everybody says; and that has NEVER happened, right? Below is a list of things that were once considered true by "everyone":

A. Earth is the center of the solar system
B. Earth is flat.
C. Diseases are caused by bad blood so the cure is to bleed sick people.
D. Washing hands in a hospital is pointless and even dangerous.

Becoming a scientist who spends most of my time at work being skeptical of data (even my own) helped me develop my critical thinking skills to better hone in on the truth. However, in this endeavor, I found the "truth" is often that we just don't know for sure. In fact, most questions, if critically answered, will be answered with, "We just don't have enough data to know for sure". 

Eliminating unnecessary fear and paranoia is healthy. People are scared enough, but when you sit them in a Microbiology class for a few months, they start freaking out. A little bit of information can be dangerous. It's true, there are many things you can't see, smell, touch, or taste that can kill you--and kill you slowly and painfully; but should we all build plastic bubbles around ourselves to insulate ourselves from the whole world? No. Why? Because science. Do I need to be afraid to go to the beach because it will for sure give me skin cancer? No. Why? Because science. Do I need to worry that every drinking fountain or toilet seat is covered with hepatitis B and HIV? No. Why? Because science. I think you're getting it.

#3 I just want to know (curiosity).

Do you ever just want to know the answer, but you don't have a good reason why you need to know? You just want to know. For some of you, this only happens when you're gossiping. But for me, it happens about every 8 minutes. I see, hear, taste, smell, touch, or think about something and then a random ridiculous question enters my brain. Now I want to know. Why? Because.



I don't just want to know. I want to know how the person answering knows. This goes back to #2 a little. I have read textbooks my entire life; but don't you ever wonder how the authors know what they're telling you? It's so dogmatic, so cut-and-dry, so matter-of-fact in the book. How did they figure that out? This is the main reason I point back to that drove me to apply for graduate school and become a scientist. I would get done reading a chapter and be plagued by the question, "How do they know that?" Now that I've done research for several years, I have a much better idea of how people "know" things and also when they are pretending to "know" things.

#4 Regularity is boring.

I have routines, don't get me wrong; but I like science because I don't really know what I will be doing in six months. It depends on where the data leads us. Sometimes it shoves you off the road and into a ditch. Sometimes you fall off a cliff and land where you need to be. It's unpredictable, and I like it. I like not knowing what's around the corner. I'm excited about work because it's uncharted. I have had the wonderful opportunity to do experiments that nobody has done before--ever! It's a cool feeling. If you like repeatable, mundane tasks for your job, then more power to you. I would need Zoloft.

#5 Science can help people (altruism). 

If you have read my other posts, you might recall that I studied in college to be a medical doctor. I gave serious thought to medical school and then decided not to apply. But I still had the desire to help people--that desire that originally attracted me to practicing medicine. I started thinking about doctors and how they know how to treat patients. How do they know that? They go to medical school, right? But who teaches them? Ah ha. Scientists. Scientists and experienced medical professionals teach most medical school courses. So when you go to the doctor and they treat you properly, you can thank them AND a scientist. One hundred years ago, medicine was much different. It was different ten years ago! It's always changing, and usually for the better. Why? Because science.

I can't tell you if I will ever make a ground-breaking discovery that advances medical treatment in our generation. But I can tell you it's rewarding just to be a part of the community of people that are pushing the bar higher. You might be in the military, but not a foot soldier or a pilot. Maybe you just cook or transfer materials or program computers. Does that mean you don't share in their victories? I think not.

Image credits:
St. Jude logo from http://www.stjude.org/
Superhero image from http://shambhalatimes.org/2012/05/06/is-knowledge-power/
'I told you so' image from http://vampirediaries.wikia.com/wiki/File:I-told-you-so-y-u-no-trust-me.jpg
Lady with questions image from http://blogs.hrhero.com/oswaldletters/2013/04/15/embrace-your-workers-curiosity/
Boring job image from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/17/jobs/17career.html?_r=0

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