The Excitable Scientist

Mostly cheerful, sometimes snarky commentary on life science research and its broader impacts

(Im)perfect Role Models May 4, 2012

Filed under: career,grad school,inspirations — excitablescientist @ 10:12 pm

I’ve spent a bit of time over the past few months thinking about important role models in my life.  One surprising conclusion that hit me right off the bat was the lack of correlation between having pleasant interactions with somebody, and that person’s ability to influence your life in a positive way.


I realized this as I was thinking of a friend of a friend who I met years ago, and have only interacted with on a handful of occasions.  To say we did not hit it off would be an understatement; there have been few times I have received such a cold reception from anybody, before or since.  And yet — those few tense interactions were enough to set off a cascade of thoughts (chain reaction, if you will) that have profoundly shaped the way I view the world, and for which I am very grateful.  I have met few people who have voiced their Strong Opinions on things so articulately and unapologetically.


I’ve come to the realization that disagreeing with people and, yes, hurting their feelings in the process, does not make the sky fall in.  I don’t think it’s a good model to be applied across the board, and I do try to tone down the attitude when talking to considerably younger folk.  But I’ve realized that being nice is not a universal prerequisite to being a strong and positive influence.  I think there is still an implicit assumption that women need to be warm and nurturing and that these qualities are critical to serving as a good mentor to younger generations.  So it was, but shouldn’t have been, a surprise to realize that one of my most influential female role models is neither nice nor nurturing, but intelligent and ambitious and aggressive.  It stuns me to think that all these, and many more, seismic shifts in thinking were results of only a few hours of (rather intimidating) conversation.  I tip my hat.


The other example of someone making a lasting impression after very brief interactions involves an alumnus of my lab.  The one and only time I met him was during a conference poster session, and it was amazing to see that someone could retain such unabashed excitement about science well into their “grown-up” years.  I’ve never seen anyone’s eyes sparkle with such intensity as when he was describing his totally cool findings, and even cooler experiments done to exclude alternate explanations.  The West Coast seems to breed a particular type of laid-back attitude which I have not even been able to fake, let alone adopt, so it was very refreshing to see an example of someone who succeeded in this environment despite being many standard deviations away from the norm, in terms of openly displayed passion.  Finding out that he was not universally liked within the department, and that he went through periods of intense stress when things weren’t working, only added to my impression of him as a real-world role model, someone I can aspire to be like, instead of some unattainable standard of perfection.


So, dear readers (some imaginary number of you), tell me: who do you look up to?  Are there people who have made unexpectedly significant contributions to your outlook on the world?  Do you notice any recurring qualities in people who have influenced your thinking?  Tell me in the comments!


Not a letdown July 30, 2011

Filed under: career,undergrad — excitablescientist @ 5:41 pm

For a long time, I’ve been thinking about how to write a “perfect” first blog entry; so far, this approach has not yielded fruit.  Instead, I thought I’d share an anecdote which illustrates the problem of valuing certain types of research above others, something I plan to expand on in future posts.


A few acquaintances and I were huddled over a recent discovery published in one of the science GlamourMags.  A compound from a natural source was found to be extraordinarily effective against a certain disease target, with minimal effects on nondiseased tissues.  The fact that this compound exists in nature reminded someone of a friend’s science fair project from high school – which involved testing the potential of a panel of natural compounds to treat a different disease.  This work was carried out in a well-respected university lab and won a prestigious award in a country-wide competition.  Since then, the student has opted not to pursue further training in biomedical research, but instead decided that it would be more rewarding to study the phenomena of health and disease on a global rather than microscopic scale, in a different faculty.  Upon hearing this, another person blurted out, “what a letdown”.


This struck a chord with me.  I did not understand why it was so disappointing that somebody interested in health science would choose to pursue a career in a related field, even if it means saying goodbye to fancy molecular techniques.  At our university, pursuing an undergraduate degree in certain faculties (like Science and Engineering) is disproportionately valued relative to others, which tackle similar problems from different angles, often using lower tech, more widely applicable approaches.  This really upsets me.


One stated reason for the relative prestige afforded to Science degrees is the high admission average required to get into this faculty.  The assumption there is that if somebody chooses a faculty with a lower minimum admission average, it was probably because they weren’t smart enough to be admitted to/succeed in Science.  This, I think, is pure garbage.  Minimum admission averages are entirely dependent on the ratio of applicants vs. seats in a program, and people should feel free to pursue courses of study that best reflect their own interests and aptitudes.  In some years, so many people apply to smaller programs (e.g. Forestry) that the admission average becomes higher than that for Science.  Does that automatically devalue a Science degree?  Of course not.


I have tremendous respect for the faculty chosen by the student in question.  It is small and has a strong sense of community, which seems to be fertile ground for nurturing interdisciplinary thinkers.  My friends in said faculty amaze me with their broad understanding of biochemistry, how it relates to nutrition, agriculture practices… all incredibly relevant in an increasingly resource-constrained world.  Their science courses are rigorous, but they learn so much more beyond the molecular world – they actually understand how it applies to real life!  I have on more than one occasion felt an overwhelming sense of inadequacy when confronted with the stark reality of the narrow scope of my own studies.  As additional evidence for the quality of students produced by this faculty, I pointed out that this year, our province’s recipient of an extremely prestigious international scholarship is one of its graduates.


In summary, this post has been a long-winded way of saying that I don’t think a career in biomedical research should be regarded as the only acceptable path for a talented high school science student.  It is never a letdown if someone decides to pursue a career that is fulfilling to them and that has potential to change the world for the better.  There is, in my view, no correlation between the level of sophistication (read: obscurity) of techniques used to study a particular field, and the field’s impact on the world.  There are countless discoveries about life and health to be made without invoking the use of microscopes or thermocyclers, and lower tech approaches will likely be part of the most cost-effective solutions to health problems that burden the world’s populations.