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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