Monday, November 19, 2012

When I grow up, Part 1: Research Scientist

Why I would like to be a research scientist:

The jobs I feel this title encompasses includes (but is not at all limited to) doctor, astronaut, researcher, science officer, engineer.

Since I was a very young child, I have always been fascinated with Science. It is a field of extremely useful and relevant insight into the human condition, and can help us simultaneously understand the smallest bacterium and the largest galaxy. The fact that all of the same rules apply anywhere in the universe is a very humbling idea, but also a very powerful one. Science can be used to peer into the deepest, darkest reaches of the universe, or inside ourselves down to the atomic scale, yet the same basic set of facts hold true.

For most of my life, in fact in my whole living memory, I have been extremely curious about pretty much every scientific domain. Whether that is chemistry (which ended up being my primary field of study at the post-secondary level), physics, biology, medicine, astronomy, or geology, I have always found myself captivated by the joy of collecting knowledge and information.

Growing up, and in most cases to this day, what I learn lines up with what I already know, validating the current knowledge base. But this is not where the joy of science comes in. I think that is a common misconception of “civilians” when discussing science as a method. When something comes along that flies in the face of what we have agreed is the best explanation for a given phenomenon, we have to alter the theory so that it fits all evidence. This is not a failure of the scientific method; it is actually its most wonderful feature. If everything that happened in the universe fit perfectly into our existing knowledge base, the world would be an incredibly boring place. There could be little or no scientific or technological innovation if we learned everything there was to know about the world, or if new experiments ceased to give us new information about our existence. If science had run up against that wall at any point in history, society as a whole would be much worse off.

The absolute most wonderful part of science is its ability to see past political lines, beyond personal opinion or celebrated intelligence. For example, in the Middle Ages, or perhaps a little earlier, it was commonly thought that the world was flat and that that the earth was the center of the whole universe. This in itself is a very egotistical idea, but nevertheless. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that view at the time, and scientists around (umm aflat?) the world, given their evidence, had no choice but to think that. However, the problem arose when scientists like the famous Galileo Galilei started to encounter evidence to show that the Earth had to be round, and that it was very likely that the Sun was actually in the center of our little universe (the solar system). This evidence was merely the scientific method at work, and required modification of the existing theories about our world, but certain parties considered it heresy and (infamously) banished him to house arrest.

The point of this story is that in order to be a scientist, at least in the strictest definition, you really have to be able to put the truth above all preconceptions and personal notions. I think of myself as being ideal for this type of work because I care deeply about understanding the universe the way it is, not fitting it into some template of prior expectations. In this way I am more than capable of being objective in the face of unexpected results in any part of my life. I am always very excited to let the scientific method determine the outcome of experiment.

In the course of learning about chemistry at the post-secondary level, I have come to realize that none of the sciences are really so different once you understand one. So while I have training in chemistry, and specifically in solid-state NMR and computational methods thereof, my training has also prepared me to learn and understand any of the sciences. Over the course of a four year university degree, we are taught to read up on scientific literature, ask any questions we have, and then enter into a lab environment to perform specific experiments based on the learned concepts. In general, extensive training on these concepts is not given, and experiments in these labs are rarely done more than once in the same way. By this logic, for a competent scientist, an experiment which holds interest for the experimenter can easily be accomplished with minimal training, regardless of the specific scientific discipline.

All of this considered, I believe I have the experience, know-how and specific skills and aptitudes to be an excellent research scientist.