What Scientists Do

*Pour lire cet article en français

My next post will be on the most awesome fuel in the world: COFFEE!!! But before I jump into the cultivation of the brown goodness, I should tell you why coffee and all related tricks to remain focused (yoga, tea, a good night’s sleep, whatever else floats your boat) are essential to scientists. A big part of our work is boring.

If you are not (or not yet) a scientist, than you may think most of our time is spent in the field collecting samples. Or, you may believe we have fun conducting experiments in a lab. While data collection in the field is a crucial (and a really fun) part of science, it really only represents a few weeks of our year. I may be in Panamá, but I still spend most of my time in a lab or a library. As for lab experiments, loading samples into a machine takes time, but once your HPLC (High Performance Liquid Chromatography) is running, there really isn’t much to do for a few hours. Similarly, it only takes so much time to change the feed of my caterpillars, as I’m not watching over every bite they take. Actually, most of a scientist’s time is spent reading scientific papers, or writing them, or fighting with statistical software, or begging for money (i.e. writing grants, fellowships and scholarships). Let’s not forget all the conferences and seminars we have to attend and where we listen to people present their research, where we present posters (they need to be written at some point) or where we present our own data orally. Those oral presentation need to be perfect. That means we already presented them to our supervisor (and got bitched at, and improved it), and to our lab mates (and got bitched at, and improved it), and to our supervision committee (guess what happens then).

Now, I’m going to crush some of your dreams about science. Reading the “Materials and Methods” section of a paper is not what I would call fun. It actually tends to make for a boring read. However, it is crucial that we pay undivided attention to that section. It is that section that tells us if the paper’s conclusions are valid. And, quite often, we’re trying to replicate whatever the authors did, so we actually have to understand what we’re reading. Then, if you think reading a “Materials and Methods” section is boring, try writing one. Good luck! And again, undivided attention is crucial, because that’s one of the things that will get your paper published… or rejected. Science is a cruel world with a cruel rule: “Publish or Perish”! No papers = No job. As for statistics, writing code in R can be a pain. There will always be a mistake in your code, and it is sometimes a challenge to find the one curly bracket ({) that should have been a square bracket ([). And yes, sometimes you spend 2 or 3 days just to figure out how to calculate one number. If you’ve ever looked at scientific equipment prices, you know that the stuff does not come cheap. To do research, one needs a ridiculous amount of money. On top of it, a scientist needs to eat and needs a roof (this is shocking news, I know). To go into research, you need money, and that means writing a lot of grant proposals and scholarship forms. And yes, that also takes all your brain cells. Finally, there’s those seminars and conferences to attend. The first talk is always easy and really interesting. But, after 4 or 5 hours of data and graphs on totally different subjects (thankfully, we get breaks), any normal person would start to fall asleep. There’s just so much p-values that one can take.

Now you must wonder, if science has all those nasty parts to it, why the hell are we doing it? Are we masochistic? No, we’re doing it because it’s totally worth it. How do you know you’re cut for science? Well if you’re one of those people that asks “Why?” all the time, and if you really go nuts when you don’t get an answer, you’re made for this. Science can also be exhilarating! There is nothing like discovering something new and knowing you’re the only one person in the world that knows it. You will be the only one to know until you publish your discovery. Then, 3 people will know because scientific papers are on average read by only 3 people. Thankfully those three people are rarely family members. Finally, there’s those moments when you are collecting data or simply observing nature. If you read the blogs or tweeter feeds of university professors, you will certainly fall on very excited comments form a Prof that finally got 15 minutes alone with his microscope (cheers to Prof. Terry A. Wheeler who maintains the Lyman’s blog). Or, you will read a comment about how awesome it is to finally spend two weeks in the Arctic (sounds like Prof. Christopher M. Buddle, you can read his blog too).

We are in science because the pains and boredoms of the work are worth it. We love the world, and we want to understand it. That’s worth a few sleepless nights of data analysis. Now sleepless (and productive) nights can’t happen without help. For more on the subject, read my next post on the Chiriquí coffee plantations.


One thought on “What Scientists Do

  1. Pingback: Que font les chercheurs ? | Notes de recherche – Research notes

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