Why Did I Become a Scientist?
This is a question that I asked myself a lot through grad school and well into my post-doc. The phrasing was a little different though. The question I asked myself was something more like “why in the hell am I putting myself through this crap?” Everyone figures that the process of becoming an independent scientist will be an academically challenging one, but what one may not count on is that it is also psychologically challenging.
Think about it. I had to first get my PhD which meant I had to go to graduate school. Now that wouldn’t have been so bad if graduate school was like professional schools and had a definite time line. If you start medical school in 2009, you can plan on graduating in 2013 with your MD. If you start law school in 2009, you can plan on graduating in 2012 with your JD. If you start graduate school in 2009, you can plan on graduating—and that’s it. It may take you 4 years, it may take you 7. If you are the only scientist in your family like I am, you know how demoralizing it is when your parents, who have no idea how science works, ask, “when are you going to graduate?” and your most truthful and honest answer is, “the hell if I know.”
Going through graduate school can be like driving a car down a long highway that has no signs or mile markers so you never know how far you are from your destination and you don’t even know if there’s another gas station along the way to help you get to the end. It’s grueling. And I lived like a pauper. Now, it’s great that I didn’t have to pay for it, but what I made as a graduate student was just enough to survive on. (When I was in graduate school, I remember asking a friend if he wanted to go to a movie—a matinee—and he said he couldn’t afford it because he had already splurged and bought a name brand box of cereal for once instead of the store brand. Sad.)
Then, once I graduated, I did a post-doc, which was another 4 years of training (i.e., another 4 years of poverty). Several times along the journey, I considered a career change or at the very least a career redirection. As you read this gut-wrenching testimony, you might think,”If it was that bad, why did you stick with it?” Well, my answer is deceptively simple. The answer is—wait for it—I couldn’t help myself.
Seriously. That’s it. A scientist is who I am. It’s not just my job. It’s not just a passion. It’s the way that I view and appreciate and inquire about the natural world. I think I first discovered this when I was a kid taking piano lessons. A guy came to our house to tune our old upright piano and he was nice enough to let me watch him work. What was really cool, though, was that he explained how he tuned the piano. He explained how the notes assigned to the keys of the piano were based on the tuning of the A-key above middle-C to the same frequency as the “A440” tuning fork (because the fork is manufactured to vibrate at 440 Hz when struck). He explained and showed me how the soundboard on the back of the piano amplified the sound generated from the striking of the strings by the felt covered hammers inside the piano.
I found the deconstruction and explanation of the role of each component to be exciting and satisfying. I liked that there was an order and a reason that the piano worked and sounded the way it did. When he left (and when my parents weren’t home) I took the piano apart to see if those same tricks worked for a kid like me (I guess even then I was testing to see if the results were reproducible).
But it wasn’t just musical instruments. I wondered about how everything worked. From pianos and guitars to microwaves and radios. As I learned more and more through school and through my own reading, I became more interested in how living things “worked” at the molecular level, and I guess that’s why I’m a biochemist today. These days, I’m not taking apart pianos, but proteins. I don’t tune keys to a certain frequency but I try to make my protein play a different “tune” by replacing its “keys”–the amino acids.
So there you have it. My graduate school and post-doc journeys were difficult and psychologically exhausting paths I had to take to gain the skills I needed to explore the biomolecular world in a way that satisfied me. To answer the original question, “why did I become a scientist?” I’d have to say that I didn’t really become a scientist. I was just born that way. I was just lucky enough to find a job lets me be who I am.
Teaster Baird, Jr. is an associate professor, proud father, devoted husband and avid photographer. When not preparing lectures, Teaster can be found in the lab, advising the newest generation of scientists, or hiding in his office from undergraduates who just took his exams.