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Saturday, February 24, 2024

Column: Moment of science

One of the biggest paradoxes in research is the perception of workload: I’m simultaneously always busy and always have free time. At any given moment I undoubtedly have work to do, but it can usually be put off until later. While a lot of this depends on your advisor and your research subject, it is indeed possible to have a very flexible schedule as a graduate student. You don’t need to work 9 to 5 or work weekends … but you probably will want to.

Science doesn’t sleep. Research doesn’t take a vacation. Even if I can’t do any more lab work for whatever reason (out of materials, study subjects died, beancounters say I can’t afford any more Taq polymerase), I can always apply to new grants or read more scientific literature.

Much of that type of work – reading journals, designing protocols, e-mailing collaborators, running statistical analysis and writing up results – is stuff you could do at home in your pajamas … which I do regularly, with an energy drink at the ready and Anamanaguchi blasting in my headphones for motivation.

This type of work is usually the bulk of research, too: Every hour one spends in the field collecting insects or plants or archaeological treasures corresponds to 100 hours indoors sorting, identifying and labeling everything. If you were hoping to go into archaeology and live the life of Indiana Jones, you will be greatly disappointed. I hope you like pottery shards!

This system of study, to me, is the ideal way to structure a life. You are never bored because you always have a task available, but your schedule is flexible enough that you can hop among your various projects and your extracurricular and social obligations freely. As long as you are productive and show your advisor signs of life or progress periodically, you are still on track.

Admittedly, not every graduate student has this luxury, but the proportion is certainly higher than among most cubicle drones. I probably work far more than 40 hours a week, but it’s work I enjoy at hours I can set myself. I don’t notice how much I’m working because the labor doesn’t interfere with my social life and I’m having too much fun doing it anyway.

I know what some of you are thinking: Work can be fun? And not just work, but school-work? The kind of stuff you spend the first 18-21 years of your life waiting for the graduation ceremony that marks you never having to do any of it again? How could that possibly be fun? If you’re one of the people thinking this, I have one word for you: Science! With a capitol “S” and an exclamation point, because that’s how it sounds when I read it. If you still don’t get it, enjoy your future at Dunder Mifflin, with your TPS reports and your stock options and six-figure salary, because that’s where you’re headed.

The reason grad students put up with, well, everything is because science is such a great motivator. It’s not just the results. The very act of sciencing all the science for science is pleasurable. Science is about gaining knowledge where once sat ignorance. You have a question. You find the answer. Simple, yet deeply satisfying, like scratching an itch. The nature of the questions differs among scientists, however. Part of graduate school is learning what types of questions drive you.

Some scientists seek to progress humanity: curing disease, solving the energy crisis and all that clichéd crap that infests every college application ever. For others, it’s the quest for Truth. “Does the world work like I hypothesized? Let’s find out.” These big picture scientists have an overarching question that justifies their work, which fills in pieces of the puzzle.

Then there are the scientists like myself who aren’t searching for answers, but for the questions themselves. “What do we not know? What have we not discovered yet?” It’s not about “Why,” it’s about “Why not!” To find something brand new, be the first to publish about it and have it named after me: That’s what gets me to work every day, or at least to my laptop.

MATAN SHELOMI is throwing Science! at the walls to see what sticks. Offer him a postdoc at mshelomi@ucdavis.edu.


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