So let’s say as a child you were fascinated by all things science. Your parents bought you your very own microscope, and you delightedly looked at the strangely multifaceted eyes of flies or examined the fascinating branching pattern of leaf vasculature. Enraptured by all there is to explore in this beautiful world of ours, you apply yourself diligently in classes, taking in chemistry, biology, anatomy; soaking up as much information as possible.
You go to college. You revel in the deeper depths of learning you find there. Things you had taken for granted, like how DNA transcribes into RNA which then translates into protein, are suddenly thrown for a loop with novel ideas like reverse-transcriptase and RNA viruses. You begin to grasp how the structure of atoms contribute to the shape of molecules and how those molecules in turn interact within a protein to dictate it’s function; the protein in turn runs machinery as part of an individual cell, and how individual cells interact in turn affects how the organism functions as a whole! This bottom-up understanding of life is profound and eye-opening.
You graduate college and decide to do some research before going back to school. To get a taste of what’s in store, so to speak. Suddenly, the blitz of learning screeches its brakes. Sure, you gather more information on pathways and techniques pertinent to your research topic, but that information is often esoteric and only bears significance to what you’re working on. If you are solving some of biology’s biggest questions, that may be all well and good, but most research is so specific that its impact is minimal and rarely ground-breaking (especially the research you might do right after college).
You begin to realize that all of that knowledge you soaked up in school, well, it all had to be discovered by SOMEONE. And the process of discovering? It takes years. Decades. Lifetimes of hard work and dedication.
You see your future laid out before you in research. You toil through graduate school, and hopefully do not get stuck with an awful project for your thesis. You maybe find a good post-doc position, but even then you will be less than an employee, at the whim of your P.I., and constantly struggling to make ends meet. Eventually, maybe, you will rise to the ranks of the principal investigators, with your own lab with your own hard-won grant money. But then you are in a race; a race against everyone else in your field. You have to put in the most work, to read the most papers, to stay the most informed on your minuscule topic, or else your research topics become antiquated and your funding disappears. There is no end goal, like flying to Mars or curing all of cancer. You have to take baby steps, always, maddeningly small baby steps.
And while you’ve devoted yourself to research, to the science that so fascinated you as a child, you lose your love of it. You enjoy it only for the puzzle and the game and not for the child-like wonder and discovery. I have seen the poorly feigned interest in the eyes of many a researcher discussing their findings.
I suppose this is how it is with almost every profession. It becomes a job, nothing more.
That’s just the way the world is.
Except… except for the teachers. For the ones who instilled that drive of curiosity, who nurtured that child-like wonder. Science isn’t about winning the next grant, or chewing your nails wondering if your paper will be accepted to that prestigious journal. No. Science is about learning, about discovering, and about sharing those discoveries with others. Strip the pompousness, the jargon, the studied politico-academic maneuvering, and you have curious children in big lab coats.
But that’s not the way you’re supposed to do it. Here, in science, we must keep our secrets closely guarded, shield the gleam from our eyes, and soldier on. Pipette mechanically into infinity with the bloated NIH beckoning you further, always further.
That’s just the way the world is.