Thursday, 10 March 2011

I’m a Scientist... no thanks to you!

I never considered being a scientist at school. It wasn’t that I didn’t like science – I enjoyed doing chemistry, physics, psychology and mathematics because I found them easy. Unlike the humanities, the sciences were somehow intuitive to me. A friend once told me I should be a scientist, but only because she thought I looked good in a lab coat and safety glasses!

The problem was that whenever I saw a careers adviser the term “scientist” or “research scientist” never came up. It was always “engineer” of one form or another. I went to an all girls school near Melbourne, Australia, where the general consensus was that to have a respectable ‘profession’ anyone interested in science ought to be an engineer. Is this still the case? I’ve no idea. It might have been a failing of the specific careers adviser, but I never had any teachers suggest that research science was a viable career either.  Not once.  (Of course, I could have done engineering and gone into research that way, but no-one ever explained that to me either!)

To add insult to injury, I was actively deterred from studying science at university by my father. At the time, he was a high school maths teacher who had a brief spell doing a research Masters in Science (in artificial intelligence) as a mature age student. He never finished the Masters and became rather disillusioned with research in general*.

I blatantly lied to him at the end of school and told him that I didn’t get into the Engineering/Commerce double degree he wanted me to do because I didn’t have the marks. I did have the marks – but I never put it on my course preferences list. I chose an Engineering/Science double degree instead because somehow, I didn’t want to give up on that word “science” just yet. (If he reads this blog, I’ve just been found out!)

All was going well when I decided, after two years of university, to drop the engineering degree and only complete the science one. Sadly, my dad and I didn’t speak for years afterward because he thought I was making a mistake. To his credit, he was just trying to ensure that at the end of my studies there would be a job for me, and I can see how his own experience would lead him to discourage me from the action I took. At the time, though, I was taking a risk and following my heart. It wasn’t a light decision, but I was lucky to have an inspiring lecturer (Dr. Roger Rassool) to thank for giving me the courage to stick to my guns and do what I knew was right for me. After this, Roger and I did outreach together for years and he remains a good friend today.

Fast forward 6 years and shift from Australia to the UK, and I’m now the first in my family to have PhD and I’m lucky enough to have a highly sought-after research fellowship to pursue my research. I’m also glad to say that my Dad has finally realized that science was the right move for me after all.

So, to all of the students who I’ll be chatting to during “I’m a Scientist” I hope that whatever you want to do, you’ll follow your heart. Research science can be competitive and it can be tough but it is an interesting, challenging and ultimately rewarding career.

At the end of my days I’d like to be able to say I made a difference, that I made a contribution to human knowledge. After all, exploring and learning about the world is a part of being human. Be a part of that.

*On a positive note, after years running his own business my Dad recently went back to university as a mature age student and became a lawyer, top of his class, good on him!

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