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A Scientist Is a Writer Is a Teacher

So often we ask children what they want to ‘be’ when they grow up. Discrete choices are presented. A teacher or a banker? A firefighter or a lawyer? A nurse or a meteorologist? A doctor or an accountant? A scientist or a writer? My natural inclination was to answer doctor, scientist, or teacher, but I always found it hard to choose (I guess I was unknowingly destined to the #doubledocs life from a young age). Growing up, I thought that my career choice had to be just that, a choice--“this or that”--but in thinking that, I was missing the reality that I could train to be all of these at once.

Having welcomed my first child earlier this year, I often wonder what she will want to ‘be’ one day and what she will ultimately choose for her career. Those ponderings have led me to reflect on how childhood dreams and experiences morph into real-life adult careers, and lately, I reminisced with my own mom about the incredible teachers I was fortunate enough to have growing up and how they inspired my educational and professional choices. We chatted about Ms. this and Mr. that, which subjects they taught, how old I was when they taught me, memories I have from their classes, and how their dedication to my education shaped me into the person, parent, and professional that I am today. 

In these reflections, I have come to appreciate that I am the scientist that I am today because of the teachers I was lucky enough to have across every discipline--from biology to classical Latin, to history, to physical education and to fine arts. While I have had a deep love for and fascination with science for as long as I can remember, I have also been captivated by the stories of American history, so artfully retold by one of my favorite teachers. I loved learning the complexities of literary classics with another beloved educator, and I discovered a new passion when a fine arts teacher took the time to encourage me. 

At the time, I considered these to merely be fun and interesting academic moments--thankful features of classical education along my proclaimed path towards a career as a doctor and a scientist. What I have realized in my adult life, however, is that all of these experiences have molded me into the scientist and doctor-in-training I am today. It wasn’t just my science and math classes that prepared me for this. Rather, now I realize that those painstaking translations of the Aeneid and analyses of the Odyssey have taught me to recognize and appreciate the  well-crafted written word. The fun and exciting unit on rhetoric and debate in 11th grade English helped build a foundation for honing my oral presentation skills. Learning how to rigorously edit and revise my writing with my literature teacher nearly fifteen years ago now continues to empower me to be a better, more effective science communicator in my work. 

While I now appreciate the continued impact these educators--as well as many others during my undergraduate years--have on my career, it has been a winding path to this appreciation. As a young child, I found it hard to choose just exactly ‘what I wanted to be’ when I grew up; if you asked me on a Tuesday, I might answer ‘a doctor!,’ on a Friday ‘a teacher!,’ or on a Monday ‘a scientist!’ As an older adolescent, I excelled in the sciences and settled into the goal of becoming a physician, but I also discovered a love for writing and a passion for mentorship. In my college years, I found ways to combine my dedication to science and medicine with my passion for serving others and narrowed my goal to becoming an academic physician-scientist. Finally, in my graduate school years, I’ve realized that my love for writing has a home in this career too. I’ve come to appreciate that my love for writing and written communication has carried me through many hours of (what feels like unending) grant and paper revisions and that my passion for mentorship has prompted me to be a better labmate, colleague, and collaborator. 

Without this passion for writing--inspired by a high school English teacher all those years ago--the hours spent revising grants, drafting papers, and writing exams would be nothing more than another tedious hurdle to pass on my way to becoming a physician scientist. Without my love for mentorship and service, days spent teaching new students lab techniques, hours spent Zooming collaborators for troubleshooting experiments, and time spent sharing the clinical context to our lab’s research would be only a frustrating distraction from my medical studies or the technical execution of my PhD studies. 

Instead, my love for writing and my passion for mentorship--sparked in my high school years and kindled in my college years--has turned these tasks into welcome facets of my job, and better yet, has inspired me to seek out opportunities that have enriched my training and my career in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced (like serving as the Editor of this blog). As such, my training as a physician-scientist will train me to a physician and to be a technical scientist, but it will also train me to a writer, a teacher, and more. 

Expanding my perspective of what it can mean to be a physician-scientist has taught me that there’s no one right answer to what I want to ‘be’ when I grow up. We tell children that they can be anything they want to be, but actually, they can be everything they want to be. As a child, I thought I had to choose ‘what I wanted to be,’ but now I know that I didn’t have to choose at all. Yes, a scientist is a scientist. But a scientist is also a mentor, a communicator, and an artist. And for me, a scientist is a scientist, a writer, and a teacher.  

Carey Jansen (@careyjans)

MD/PhD Student, Emory

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