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WHAT IS THE FUN OF BEING A SCIENTIST?

What is Fun in Science?   (http://dr-monsrs.net)
What is Fun in Science?    (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

              Since most adults know so little about science and research, I thought it would be good to briefly present how scientists have fun with their job activities.

            Most research scientists, including me, have not won a Nobel Prize, are not heading a research institute, have never acquired research grants for many millions of dollars at one time, and publish a moderate number of good reports in professional science journals each year (i.e., rather than the minimum of 4-6 publications demanded yearly from “star scientists”).  Most professional researchers, whether working in academia or industry, generally enjoy their work despite the presence of several frustrating job situations that perplex their research activities (see my earlier post on “Why is the Daily Life of Modern University Scientists so very Hectic” in the Scientists category).

             What exactly do research scientists have fun doing?   I will briefly list below only  selected examples of common types of fun with being a faculty scientist in a modern university.  Certainly there are some other types of fun, and corresponding examples are found for research scientists in industrial settings.
                         (1) Working on experimental research in one’s own research laboratory, as contrasted to working in some other scientist’s lab, is big ego fun.
                        ( 2) Making discoveries via conducting experiments is fun, because that is the classical goal of almost all research work.  Being the very first to discover something (e.g., a new star or planet, a new species, a new enzymatic modulator, a new polymeric nanomaterial, etc.) is a complete thrill for any scientist; all the sweat and tears along the way then are made to seem quite unimportant.
                        (3) A science breakthrough differs from a simple discovery by forming a new concept, setting off further studies in a new direction, overturning some established viewpoint, unexpectedly inventing a new and better assay system, etc.; breakthroughs are great fun for creative scientists, especially when they are a surprise (i.e., not everything in scientific research can be planned or predicted).
                        (4) Working closely with students, postdocs, research technicians, and collaborators is fun because a well-organized lab group is almost like having a second family.
                        (5) Seeing a former graduate student or postdoctoral fellow you have trained go on to become a very successful independent investigator always is professional fun, because some credit still must be given to their older mentor even if many years have passed.
                        (6) Being put in charge of a research group or a research facility, or, being elected to a leadership position in a science society, is fun because it is public recognition that a scientist has expertise, problem-solving skills, reliability, and good judgment.
                        (7) Publishing a long and detailed research report in a science journal is much fun, and often seems to young scientists to be quite analogous to all the work in giving birth to a baby.  Being invited to write a review article or to contribute a chapter for a new edited book reflects a growing reputation amongst peer scientists, and always is fun even though it involves enormous additional effort.
                        (8) Going to an annual science society meeting or an international science congress is a very common enjoyment for faculty scientists; it is exciting to present a platform talk or a poster display, and, to hear seminars given by very famous scientists and later to converse with them; these enjoyments are often surpassed by the personal fun of chatting with old friends and colleagues from graduate school or early positions.
                       
(9) Doing a good job with teaching in basic or advanced courses certainly can be challenging, but often is fun for members of the science faculty.

             One big ongoing piece of satisfying fun for scientists is to personally conduct experiments successfully.  This necessitates very much coordination of hands, eyes, and brain, and involves technical skills, practical experience, and mental alertness; one must deal with design of experiments, on the spot evaluation of data as it is being produced, and, careful and complete analysis of all the research results.

            Many research instruments are fascinating and enormous fun to operate.  Using some fancy, expensive, and complex instrument with success actually is a type of fun analogous to playing with a toy made for adults!   Some research instruments, such as modern radio-telescopes and various multidimensional spectroscopes, require the operator to be very well-versed in computation, both for control and operation of the instrument, and for analysis of the data output.  Skillful mastery with using these research instruments is not something every scientist is able to achieve easily.

            Science really is people.  The chief scientist (Principal Investigator) must spend much time and patient effort to enable all the different graduate students, Postdocs, technical assistants, and visitors to learn how to be part of a research team; after doing this successfully, the research work is purely fun.  Lab parties are commonplace, and can be originated on the occasion of a new grant, someone’s birthday, a big new publication, an official holiday, etc.; all costs usually are paid by the chief scientist, but there also can be some private parties to which the boss is not invited.

            Most research scientists are happy just to achieve renown and peer recognition from other scientists working in their branch of modern science.  It is not necessary to win a Nobel Prize [1] or a Kavli Prize [2] to become either a research leader or a very famous scientist.   Only a few researchers win one of these very prestigious honors each year.   It is widely recognized by professional scientists that the selection committee for Nobel Prizes in the sciences sometimes overlooks some very accomplished researchers who are truly outstanding [3].  Winning such a big honor can have both good and bad effects; it is not unusual that scientists winning one of these great awards suddenly find that it becomes more and more difficult to do further great research work because so very much attention, innumerable invitations, and enormous regard always are being directed onto them.

            Many of the different types of fun during a science career do not simply happen, but necessitate that the scientist has considerable dedication, patience, energy, determination, and flexibility.  Typically, fun occurs in conjunction with lots of hard work.  Being good at solving problems and having good luck always is a big help for research scientists working in both industries and universities.  Scientists can increase their fun and job satisfaction by finding a work environment that suits their individual characteristics, interests, and abilities.  Being a successful research scientist is not always easy, but one indeed can have considerable fun along the way!

[1]  The Nobel Prize, 2014.  876 Nobel Laureates since 1901.   Available on the internet at:
http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/index.html  .

[2]  The Kavli Prize, 2014.  The Kavli Prize – Science prizes for the future.   Available on the internet at:
http://www.kavliprize.no/artikkel/vis.html?tid=27868 .

[3]  E. Westly, 2008.   No Nobel for you: Top 10 Nobel snubs.   Available on the internet at:
http://www.scientificamerican.com/slideshow.cfm?id=10-nobel-snubs .

 

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