MadSci Network: Environment/Ecology

Re: What is a scientist?

Area: Environment/Ecology
Posted By: Joe Simpson, MD/PhD Student, Neuroscience
Date: Fri Apr 19 11:52:15 1996

Dear class,
Thank you for your questions! Iím sure that many other people have wondered the same things. This is a good opportunity to set the record straight.

Rather than try to address these questions as an individual, I think it would be best to describe a typical scientist. Obviously, this will be a very broad and sweeping generalization, and many scientists wonít fit this description at all. But many will.

First, it is critical to dispel the myth that the vast majority of scientists are white males. There have been female scientists since at least the 19th century, including famous Nobel Prize winners such as Marie Curie and many others. In the last few decades, the number of women in the sciences has steadily increased. I would guess that they are fast approaching 50% of all scientists.

It is also not true that the vast majority of scientists are of any one race. PBS is currently showing a 6 part documentary about minority scientists called Breakthrough. Here, it is showing Sundays at 3 PM CDT. Check your local listings. Last Sunday was the first installment, profiling four minority scientists in the physical sciences. One of them studies superstring theory, arguably one of the most mathematically and conceptually difficult branches of theoretical physics. Another has a very high position at NASA and testified before Congress last year about NASAís budget. And of course there are many other successful minority scientists who have made important discoveries. Charles Drew, a black physician, won the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Now, on to your other questions. First of all, almost all scientists love what they do. They enjoy their work and look forward to going to the lab every day, sometimes even on weekends. I think I speak for most scientists when I say that if they were given the choice again, they would go into some scientific discipline. Maybe not the same one that they are currently in, but definitely some field where they could study and learn about the natural world (or the world of computers, etc.) Most scientists have a natural curiosity and are always looking to gain more information, not just in their own field but about lots of different things.

Not all scientists were great students in high school. This is especially true for people who really hadnít figured out what they were interested in yet. But most of them found something that excited them by college, and worked hard to succeed in that area. Of course, given the number of scientists, there is no way that every one of them could have been the smartest student in their high school or college, or even in the top 10% of their class. More important than sheer intelligence is hard work, determination, and persistence. Didnít Thomas Edison (who always did poorly in school) say that invention is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration?

In other respects, scientists are just like everyone else. They take vacations, and spend weekends doing fun recreational things like sports or hobbies. And they like all different types of music, from rock to classical to jazz. I guess a certain mystique has grown up around scientists that makes them seem somehow different from the rest of us. But believe me, theyíre not. A good auto mechanic knows a lot about all different kinds of engines. It was no easier for him (or her) to learn all of that information than it is for a scientist to learn new scientific techniques. Lawyers have mastered thousands of details about our legal system. In fact, to do ANY job well requires a ton of hard work and the ability to focus on your goals without being distracted. Iím sure that if you think about it, youíll see that this is true. And I hope that you then conclude that you, too, can be a scientist if that is what you want to do. There is nothing that can stop you.

Which leads to my final answer, to your question about how long it takes to become a scientist:
If by scientist you mean someone with either a PhD or MD degree, then the answer is at least 8 years after high school. After college, budding scientists go to graduate school, where they spend anywhere from four to nine years working on their PhD. The average time is different for different fields; a physics PhD might normally take six years, while a psychology one might take four or five. Some people with MD degrees, i.e. doctors, are also primarily scientists doing research on biomedical topics. Medical school takes four years. There are even some people (like me) who have the crazy idea of trying to get BOTH an MD and a PhD. This takes at least seven years after college. And of course, when a new scientist completes their training, they still must go through several more years of working with and learning from older, more experienced scientists. This is called a postdoctoral fellowship, or postdoc. In some fields a scientist might do two or three postdocs (each lasting one or two years) before they have enough experience to get a laboratory and grant funding of their own.

I hope this clarifies things in your minds. And I hope that some of you decide to pursue a career in science!

Joe Simpson
3rd year MD/PhD student, Neurosciences
School of Medicine

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