How to Become a Scientist
Updated: Aug 14
You start by asking "Why?" repeatedly, from the time you learn to speak. On occasion, for variety, you ask "How?"
Eventually, some grown-up will exclaim "I don't know!" with a fierce glare. This will surprise you and you will refrain from asking for a little while. Then you resume asking your parents. And your father's admiring "That's a very intelligent question!" will get you started all over again.
You argue a subtle point of grammatical usage with your 10th grade English teacher. The obscure discussion will keep your classmates from enjoying their library hour, and they will glare at you accusingly. You persist. Your teacher will come to see your point as logical and actually correct at the end of the long hour, and will look at you with what seems like respect.
You look at a paraffin tray containing a frog you will have to dissect. You are revolted by the stench of formaldehyde and the horror of seeing this until recently live creature motionless in front of you. You ask yourself philosophical questions. Is it right to cut open another being for one's own edification? You don't have an answer. But once you start dissecting and part the muscles, see the tendons and blood vessels, and then the wondrous heart, you are overwhelmed by the magic of it. How complex, how intricate we are. But how? And why? The answers are harder to come by.
You read Bertrand Russell's "Why I Am Not a Christian" and marvel as he systematically demolishes religious belief. Left with no choice in the face of his cold logic, you give up your God. You feel true to yourself, yet bereft, empty, desolate.
And yet, life continues to amaze you. Even after the creature you detest the most on this earth, a cockroach, is presented on another dissection tray, and it twitches! A divine reproach for embracing agnosticism? Everyone else's cockroach remains motionless.
For college, you apply to the Physiology department as well as the English department. Unhelpfully, you get into both. You decide you cannot just read and enjoy science as you can English. You will have to study science. Besides, the business of earning a living might be easier. So you join the Physiology department. The registrar is aghast and asks if you are mad. The English department is prestigious and coveted. Physiology is not. Yet, you persist.
In chemistry, you measure and pour liquids from flasks into larger flasks, watching them change color, smoke, explode. The molecules of life. But back in physiology class, the muscles, the ligaments, the beating heart – this is where the beauty is. Fragile yet forceful. Inexplicable. The ultimate mystery. Can it be solved, you find yourself asking. How?
You study physiology and note that the class you really long for is the English class, which, sadly, meets only once every two weeks for a paltry hour. When it finally is time, the professor reads DH Lawrence’s poem "The Mosquito" which you dislike instantly. This is what you waited for? Frustrated, you offer a scathing review of the poem, declaring that you don't consider it poetry. The teacher excoriates you in front of the entire class for your "Audaaacity!" You listen quietly, defiantly, as your classmates shrink into their seats, horrified. When the professor calms down and moves on to Shelley and recites "Ode to the West Wind", the beauty of it calms you down. When he gets to "O wind, if winter comes...", you quietly offer "...can spring be far behind?" He pauses, takes off his glasses, looks at you with what seems like respect, and says with a half-smile, "So you do like poetry after all!"
You transfer colleges, and decide to major in Biochemistry. You discover it has the most requirements of any major. Because you are now at a liberal arts college, to your delight, you "have" to take Shakespeare and poetry, along with biochemistry, genetics and mathematics in order to graduate.
You isolate DNA for the first time, spooling it at the end of a pipette. Seeing the blueprint of life renders you speechless. And then you drop the tube of DNA. Your lab partner is withering in her silent contempt.
You study molecular biology, genetics, biochemistry. You study Genes IV and read “The Double Helix”, paying tribute to Rosalind Franklin, patronizingly called “Rosie” by Jim Watson who went on to use her iconic crystallographic images to deduce the structure of DNA.
You work very hard for your A's and B's in science. Yet, your peers are most astonished by the seemingly effortless A in Harold Skulsky's Shakespeare class. "Bravissima!" he writes in the margin at an analysis you proferred. It is exhilarating, and doesn't seem like work.
Then you decide to go to graduate school. You pick the lab for your dissertation work. You hit a wall. There is no way to get to the other side. You change labs. You make good progress. You get into a rut. There seems to be no way to get to the other side. You are tired, sleepless, overworked, underpaid. You take a leave of absence. You return. Everything you touch turns to gold. You publish papers. You complete your dissertation. You defend it. Your favorite parts in your dissertation to this day are not the few hundred pages of science but the two pages of your acknowledgments to family, friends, colleagues, mentors.
You begin a fellowship. You are surrounded by some of the smartest people you’ve ever met. They speak well too, with well-chosen words. They are witty, eloquent. You start a "quote board" to capture their sayings. Your favorites are "Of course, the Unabomber is insane. You have to be insane to trust the post office to deliver your bombs!" And another: "I'm not passive-aggressive. I'm just plain fucking aggressive."
You even write one in from your brilliant advisor, proclaimed upon viewing the results of an experiment you have performed: "I bet a gazillion dollars that's an artifact." A week later, you follow up with a terse addition: "He was right."
You enter the workforce. You are a scientist.
The dream deferred seizes you periodically. Or does it hold you with its glittering eye? You pick up your pen. You have become a scientist.
Maybe you can still become a writer.