Paradigms, peers, and patents

For every paradigm-shifting breakthrough in science there are a plethora of failed experiments, myriad grant applications, patent pressures, and the activation energy barrier that is peer-reviewed publication to overcome. So with all those issues to face is science a good career, asks David Bradley

“Practicing science has enabled me to keep on learning new things, especially those supposedly unrelated to my career discipline,” enthuses chemist Prasanna “AP” de Silva of Queen's University Belfast who works on building molecules that can carry out logical functions. “Sometimes the learning happens alongside very bright young minds and the teacher-student roles are reversed often.” Christie Wilcox, one of those bright, young minds, couldn't agree more. “I knew by the end of high school that I loved science, particularly anything that related to animals and the ocean,” she says.

Like many starting out in their careers, Wilcox was initially uncertain about what career to pursue. She attended Eckerd College on a full-tuition scholarship and obtained a B.S. with Honours in Marine Science. Two years working as a research assistant made her realize that she loved the lab-based work and ended up applying to the University of Hawaii's Cell and Molecular Biology program with a specialization in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology.

For some turning to science takes an even bigger leap. “I started Yale University in 1988 as a nominal English major,” says Peter Steinberg, “tried modern philosophy, moved to literature/literary theory, dabbled in political theory, and ended up a political science major.” Steinberg even worked for a summer on Capitol Hill in Washington DC as an intern in a Congressional office. Physics was always at the back of his mind but his undergraduate degree was insufficient for graduate school. “A year working for a particle physicist and taking coursework filled in the gaps,” he says, “and I started at MIT the following fall, participating in a large collaboration at the CERN SPS.” A post-doctoral placement at Columbia University on a collider experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory gave him the opportunity of a staff job at BNL 2000, and he was tenured in 2006.

Others are more certain about the scientific career choice from the start. “I have never wanted to do anything else but science really so throughout my career it has always been in my mind that I would persevere along this career path no matter what hurdles I faced or may face,” says Sarah Murray, a research chemist in Manchester, England. “Of course, since I've made it my career I would say that it is a good career choice. It can lead to a lot of opportunities and there are many career paths you can take,” she adds.

Likewise, Ricardo Vidal, a biological engineer, recalls receiving a book for his ninth birthday called the “Giant book of Questions and Answers”, which inspired an early interest in science. “It covered various topics and I read it cover to cover,” he says. He suggests that when choosing science as a career, it's important to be pragmatic about outcomes. “My professors told me to pursue goals I truly enjoy working on, but the best advice was more pessimistic: Always do your best, and expect the worst. This has made sense on many occasions helped me along my path,” Vidal adds.


Paradigms, peers, and patents

For many scientists it is as if the career chooses them, rather than the converse. Jason Snyder, a post-doctoral researcher at the National Institutes of Health, admits that he could have worked harder in graduate school. “I'm pretty happy with the work I did and I think it's a time in life to explore so I don't regret doing so,” he says. When starting out, he didn't appreciate how often scientific experiments fail. “It could get pretty disheartening,” he says, “I can remember at least three occasions where senior scientists told me ‘that's just how science is’ and that allowed me to not take it personally.”


Paradigms, peers, and patents

It's a philosophical perspective that allows many scientists to persist in their passion. Gadi Rothenberg also had a humble start. “I had no money, no permanent position, and no deep knowledge of any useful specific research area,” he confesses. “You could also say I had nothing to lose, but I did have geographical and subject flexibility.” Rothenberg now holds a professorial Chair in catalysis at the University of Amsterdam, in The Netherlands and doesn't regret his career choice in the slightest. “I still think research is the greatest,” he says. “You can do whatever you like, and you get paid to do it.”

While career should be a personal choice it is not always so, there are often pressures from family and friends to opt for an apparently better job. Environmental scientist Aboud Jumbe of Bangalore University, India, faced this issue, but never succumbed to the attempts to persuade him to become a lawyer or an accountant. “There was an immense peer pressure from a certain quarter of people in my community who thought a career in science was a waste of time,” he says.

Despite the trials and tribulations of doing science in the developing world, Jumbe studies the impact of serious industrial pollution on the ecosystems or urban lakes, he is circumspect about choosing science as a career. “Science is freedom,” he asserts. “It empowers one with the ability to ask questions why?”

When scientists are not writing grant proposals, research papers, and fending off parries from journal editors and referees, there is still time for the occasional breakthrough. “Practicing science has allowed me to make a global contribution, however small it might be,” says de Silva modestly of his work on taking the logical units of the computer into small spaces, such as living cells. “This would not be the case in many other careers,” de Silva asserts. “The impact of a worthwhile scientific result cuts across nationalities and can last as well. International friendships have arisen as a result.”

It's not that scientists get stuck in science, but there are obstacles that could make a lateral career change challenging. “I hope to be out of academia or on the borderline between academia and industry working in an interdisciplinary setting with focus on bioengineering and bioinformatics,” Vidal says, but before that is possible he anticipates several years of hard work and networking before he can make the jump. “Perseverance is all that matters in science,” encourages Jumbe.

Enormous workloads mean science can be more a vocation than a job at times. Says Steinberg, “I have always been on the lookout for opportunities to blog about science, particularly about my research field, I am continually trying to scope out something larger scale, like a book.”

Murray recognizes that being a scientist should involve more than laboratory work. “I have gained a lot more self-confidence,” she says, which has opened up opportunities. “I have been a STEM Ambassador since October 2009 and am having great fun with it and enjoying meeting lots of new people.”

Science is not for the faint-hearted, it is hard work, there are many obstacles to clear along the path, but that is common for so many careers, but the job satisfaction in science can be beyond compare. Moreover, many scientists find that they can extend their careers into many other areas, such as the media and consultancy. Hands-on biologist Wilcox has faced her share of funding, feeding, and faeces problems in her research. “What got me through the roughest parts is simple – I love what I do. No matter how tough it might be, I cannot imagine anything that could make me happier.”

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(10)70129-2