Becoming A Scientist
“The whole scientific enterprise must be arranged so that the separate imaginations in different human minds can be pooled…It is in the abrupt, unaccountable aggregation of random notions, intuitions, known in science as good ideas, that the high points are made.” – Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell
Starting college, the only thing I knew about research was how to hold a micropipette in one hand and transfer water onto a piece of plastic. I had no idea what it meant to be a researcher, much less what it meant to attend graduate school. I spent most of my first year as an undergraduate being awed by the classic experiments, we discussed in my Introduction to Molecular Biology course. Hearing about X rays diffracting off structures and proteins being separated out on a gel seemed at once foreign yet inviting. Other students began discussing working in research laboratories and so I decided that would be my next step too. However, I struggled seeing myself as a researcher when all of the examples that we had discussed in class were white, men, and seemed to mostly work on their own to make discoveries.
I was in shock walking into a research building for the first time: I had never seen long black workbenches, cabinets filled with glassware, or so many post-it notes in my life. I entered the office of my soon-to-be adviser with false confidence that communicated a passion for biology despite my complete lack of skill. Not wanting anyone to know that I was incompetent, I hid behind extreme enthusiasm as a mask. I later learned that this is not an uncommon feeling: many of us face imposter syndrome especially early on in our training.
As months passed, I wondered when I would feel independent enough to try an experiment on my own. I thought I was supposed to be coming up with big ideas on how to test a range of possibilities, but really, I struggled to keep up with the literature I was reading. I sat through seminars where I was completely lost, somehow losing the speaker once they moved beyond the background slide. Even presenting a poster at a conference fed my insecurity because of the number of times I said, “I don’t know.” As time went on, however, I found myself saying “I don’t know” less and giving my own thoughts even if I did not know the answer to their exact question.
Looking back now as a graduate student I realize that I was doing just what I needed to be as a good scientist. My ideas were not big, but I did generate hypotheses when talking with other lab members. Journal clubs taught me how to read papers and break down figures. Having more questions after a lab meeting than before meant that other people were pushing me to consider new things. Working in the lab alongside others meant that I learned new techniques. During that time, I had never considered that being a scientist is not a solitary pursuit, but I quickly learned this was wrong.
Being a scientist was not something I will become someday in some moment of eureka, it is something I choose to be through my actions and relationships with other people. In fact, being a scientist is a constant journey of becoming a scientist, not on your own but through your experiences and interactions with others.
Briana Christophers, @BriChristophers
MD/PhD Student, Weill Cornell/Rockefeller/Sloan Kettering Tri-Institutional MD-PhD Program