Image by: Amber D. Miller
When I was five I could name every dinosaur – toy or drawing – that had ever crossed my path. The dark green carpet of my parent’s apartment was where Stegosaurus, Triceratops, Ankylosaurus, Pachycephalosaurus, Velociraptor, Allosaurus, and Tyrannosaurus rex battled it out every day. I’m sure you or someone you know had a similar passion. I MEAN THEY’RE FREAKING DINOSAURS, MAN! How could you not like them?! While at that time I knew nothing of paleontology or evolution, I understood that dinosaurs were animals that ONCE lived on this planet. I think that’s what was so appealing to me about these plastic toys – they were a testament to the amazing transformative power of time. Today I’m a research scientist (a molecular microbiologist to be specific), and I want to share with you my passion for discovery. Whether or not you played with dinosaurs as a kid, I think we’ve all had a similar experience where nature had inspired our imagination. Science gives you the tools to explore new possibilities and uncover never-before-seen truths about the world you live in. What’s even more exciting is that all of us are scientists in our own way, whether we realize it or not. As such, I hope you appreciate that research science is not an esoteric endeavor reserved for the Professor Frinks of the world. To the contrary, I find it a very human response to the unknown.
Take this time to ask yourself: “If I could discover something new and exciting, what would it be?” Whatever your discovery, the pathway to getting there – the basics of research science – is a three step process. 1. Find out what is known. If you think about human knowledge as a giant ring of light, through curiosity alone you can read your way to the edge of a specific point on that ring –the farthest that humanity’s intellectual light has traveled on that chosen subject. 2. Experiment. Standing on the edge of this light and peering into the abyss, you can ask a question in the form of an experiment. 3. Interpret data and make conclusions. If that question is phrased correctly, nature answers back in a language that can be interpreted, and the ring of knowledge will be expanded the slightest bit.
This is a simplification of the scientific method, but nonetheless a poetically descriptive way to think about what we do as scientists. We push the boundaries of questioning and creativity to forge an entirely new understanding of the world. How could anyone resist research science? It is a supremely unique experience!
Anyone can take the first step in this process. It’s just reading! You don’t need a special degree or training to acquaint yourself with what is known. What training as a scientist will give you, however, is a better ability to complete the last two steps – forming an experiment and interpreting the data. Yet, it may surprise you that we often complete these last two steps everyday outside of the context of science. Let’s consider an example.
If you live in a city, you probably hate your commute. It amazes me how perfectly nice, logical people suddenly turn into painfully stupid simpletons that haven’t the slightest clue how to merge or navigate an intersection! I mean how did they even get a driver’s license, let alone the job that pays for that pretentiously expensive car!? Most likely you find a way to avoid it as best you can by having a routine and route that you habitually stick to. How did it come to that? You probably used the three steps above! 1. Find out what is known. You gathered as much information as possible about traffic patterns between your home and work. What are peak hours? Are there alternate routes with less traffic? Is public transportation available? How much does parking cost? 2. Experiment. The question you’re probably asking is “What is the quickest way to get to and from work with minimum hassle?” In answering that question you might have tried different routes, parking lots, and public transportation systems. 3. Interpret data and make conclusions. If you felt like you tried enough variation during your commute, you probably found a method that was a good balance of traffic, location, and price.
While I regret to inform you that you’re not the first human being to successfully navigate rush hour traffic, you definitely employed some form of research, data collection, and analysis to shape your daily commute as it is today. As with scientific discoveries, the final conclusions you made regarding that commute are only as good as the research that got you there. If you missed valuable information or made faulty assumptions, your daily commute will not be as convenient and optimized as it could be. In the future, I hope you’ll become aware of this three step process at work when you play sports, buy groceries, or even go to the movies. We are constantly shaping our lives around the basic principles of research science.
I hope you’re beginning to realize that scientists are not the awkward, magical information genies we’re typically portrayed as (I’m looking at you, Big Bang Theory). Rather, the passion that drives scientists is basically the same one that drives you to navigate your daily life. We all want to shed light on the unknown! It’s really just about being curious, and having the conviction to answer your own questions. I’m actually no more a scientist than I was at five years old scattering dinosaurs on the living room carpet. I just have more refined methods of exploration now.
You can follow Austen on Twitter @AustenLeeT