The Allure of Science

Recently, I wrote an article about alternative careers in science; see “OK, I’ve Got My Degree. Now What?”. Judging from the responses, that entry touched on a concern shared by other scientists: What type of careers are available to people with a science degree? With a seemingly increasing number of people asking this question, you might wonder why so many people pursue careers in science. I can speak only for myself, but I suspect that my reasons for studying science and the experiences that directed me toward a career in science are common ones.
I remember thinking as a child that science held the answer to every question I had. Why is the sky blue and the grass green? What causes a rainbow? Why do some people have blue eyes and others brown? The answers could be all be gleaned from an understanding of basic scientific principles. As a high school student, and later a college student, my questions became more complex, but science still held the answers. In graduate school, the questions were often so complex or specific that there were no answers, yet science held the key to finding those answers: craft a hypothesis, then design, perform and interpret the appropriate experiments. The idea that I could answer almost any question by applying these scientific concepts appealed to me. I was limited only by my ability to formulate questions and hypotheses. I could gain information that no one had ever gathered before, and I could apply that new information to help solve problems, treat medical conditions and improve quality of life.
Another reason is the “Science is cool” factor. As a young student, my curiosity and interest in science was fueled by demonstrations, such as the use of an electrical current to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. Often the “Wow” factor of this particular demonstration was magnified by collecting and igniting the resulting hydrogen and oxygen and producing a small fireball. Later as a college student, I remember learning about DNA vectors and the potential for gene transfer and genetic engineering. The potential applications of science seemed limitless. I was hooked. I couldn’t imagine studying anything other than chemistry and biology.
Finally, I was lucky enough to have high school teachers and college professors who made science fun. My high school science classes were often the most active and animated of all of my classes. Most scientists can probably name one or more influential science teachers. For me, it was my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Bremen. He made quite an impression with his frequent references to “Big Al” (his nickname for Albert Einstein) and his atom dance to illustrate certain atomic characteristics: His fists, which represented electrons, whirled furiously in their orbits around his nucleus torso, while he jiggled his body as best he could to simulate Brownian motion. If he was feeling particularly energetic on lecture day, he would randomly move around the classroom, electrons whirling and nucleus jiggling, like a water molecule in solution. Classes were never boring.
Although I no longer perform experiments in the lab, I still enjoy learning about the most recent scientific discoveries and creative applications. I read about new, exciting scientific discoveries on a daily basis, and I am glad to learn that many of my reasons for pursuing science: a quest for knowledge and the “Science is cool” factor are alive and well.
I’m curious. How did you get involved in science?

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Terri Sundquist

Terri has worked as a Scientific Communications Specialist at Promega Corporation for more than 13 years, and prior to that, spent more than 5 years solving problems and answering questions as a Promega Technical Services Scientist. She graduated with B.S. degrees in Chemistry and Biology at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls, then earned her M.S. in Molecular Biology from the Mayo Graduate School in Rochester Minnesota.

3 thoughts on “The Allure of Science

  1. I’d credit all the strange, wonderful people in my life who loved science, from my father to all my science teachers from K12 through graduate school. More than anything, it was about curiosity: I loved learning how the biological world worked on every scale.

    The challenge of graduate school was learning to think critically about how research is performed and how much (or how little) you can actually say you know based on your experiments. For me, this lesson took some of the air out of all that passion for scientific knowledge! But it’s an essential component to scientific research.

    I think we’ll find science attracts many different personalities and learning styles, not just a stereotypical “nerd in a labcoat.” Some of us will be perfectly suited for tenured faculty positions at large research institutions, but some–probably most–will not. I think the challenge will be identifying and publicizing the spectrum of careers that suit all the different ways people enjoy science.

  2. Wow! Where do I begin?
    Four things come to mind when I think about what first interested me in science in general.
    First, I have to credit PBS with the shows Nova and Nature along with the Jacques Cousteau adventures.
    Second, my Aunt, a fifth grade teacher. She kept a diverse rock collection at her house and would give me science textbooks. I still keep these textbooks above my desk at work.
    Third, the World Book Encyclopedia collection at our home. I bet I looked through every volume a hundred times. This was pre-cable TV and pre-internet.
    Four, my Mom’s ancient Gilbert chemistry set from when she was a girl. This kit was so ancient, that there were no bottles but wooden cylinders to hold the chemicals. I had no guide books, so I’d just mix chemicals together, add water and wait to see what happened. I nearly destroyed the top of my dresser and kitchen counter. I got a more modern chemistry set later that actually had experimental instructions.

    When I was in sixth grade, we were assigned an essay to write about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I was struggling to find a topic. I knew I wanted to do something involving chemistry or biology but what? Our neighbor had a son-in-law that was a biochemist. I had no idea such a title existed. My Mom made me go interview him. He spoke to me all afternoon about where he worked and what he worked on. He’d worked in various commercial food and beverage companies that used fermentation with yeast. I was hooked! I decided that I would become a biochemist. I wrote my essay based on my conversation with the biochemist and plagiarized heavily from the World Book Encyclopedia.

    My essay set my goals for my academic career. I took all the science classes in junior high and high school I could fit in. I had great teachers all along. Thanks Mr. Schulmann, Mr. Moore, Mrs. Horton and Mrs. Flood. I graduated college with a BS in Biochemistry then on to graduate school with a PhD in Biochemistry. Who’d have thought it would all begin with a sixth grade essay…

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