Monday, May 28, 2007


“I know what motivates every scientist.”

My eyebrows raised. It was one of those moments that occurs at nearly every scientific conference: a late-night, after-poster session, caffeine-fueled conversation among scientists who are continuing the shop talk. The individual who had just made this statement was a former colleague and an up-and-coming star in his field. I knew well his dedication and intense focus. As well as his not-insignificant intelligence.

I mulled over his words, which he repeated once or twice more with a broad smile for emphasis. My mind turned to all of the scientists I had met during graduate school and postdoctoral training. Their personality traits were as varied as their laboratory skills, or their personal interests, or their passports. My graduate program was in a department that valued giving students opportunities to interact with scientists of all professional levels. We had weekly seminars given by top principal investigators in the field. Students were not only encouraged but pretty much expected to interact with them, discussing our projects and any other topics that came to mind. Being able to hear their diverse viewpoints was an incredible opportunity. I had also worked with dozens of other junior-level scientists at the bench by that time. Many of them knew my project in depth, and vice versa. I had always been struck by the multitude of perspectives with which these individuals viewed the broad world of research. What was the common thread that my friend saw?

“Every scientist wants to be famous. Period.” A triumphant note entered his voice.

My smile faded as I absorbed this thought. Did I think he could possibly be right?

In a word, no. We bantered good-naturedly about this for the rest of the conversation, and in the end agreed most agreeably to disagree. As much as I respected my friend, on this particular point I felt he had missed the mark. For, to my mind, while many scientists (indeed, many people in general) have a yearning for fame and glory, in scientific endeavor this alone is not enough to sustain one’s effort.

What, then, is the essence of motivation for scientists? Well, if I had to narrow it down to a single trait (admittedly a dangerous contention!), it would be this: Motivation must be found within the subject of study itself. In order for the intense, sustained curiosity that drives scientific research, at some level an investigator will fall in love with the topic that she or he is studying.

Why might this be so critical? Well, let’s face it. Research is repetitive; sometimes mind-numbingly so. And often frustrating. Many experiments fail the first time (if not the second, third, and tenth time). Optimization of novel methods, or even completely knitting them together from scratch, requires near-infinite reserves of patience. Sometimes knowing what goes into real scientific breakthroughs, as well as the far more common heartbreaking near-misses, can make you shake your head and wonder where most researchers find the wherewithal to press on. Would the hope for fame really sustain these efforts? I have my doubts. Evidence towards this point? The observation that almost every scientist simply lights up the moment they start describing data they have personally produced. Even the most introverted individual becomes more animated, more emphatic, more genuine. There is hope in that moment, and I don’t think it is limited to hope for one’s future alone.

No matter what our field is, as life scientists, we are all motivated by nature. We can’t help it. It’s an itch that has to be scratched. It’s why many of us, even when we are ripping out great handfuls of hair about some experiment or another in the lab, will stop to look at an earthworm on the ground after a summer rain – fascinated by its languid yet somehow frantic movements. It’s why certain phrases, such as “Which came first – the chicken or the egg?” will never be just a glib joke for us, because our minds can’t help turning them inside out. It doesn’t matter whether our personal scientific philosophy is reductionist in nature, or holistic; when it comes to the natural world, we simply can’t leave well enough alone.

And why is this so important? Well, for one thing - without that fascination, what would happen if one came across some observation that was contrary to popular opinion? If motivated solely by desire for fame alone, would one have the drive to pursue this difficult path? Perhaps not, as it might cause derision by peers not ready to accept an alternative hypothesis. Especially if they had much at stake in the status quo. Scientists are, after all, just as prone to intellectual inertia as humanity at large.

In the end, I think that at least for most scientists, the beauty lies within the thing itself. And that object of focus can take so many forms: a new time-saving technique or method, a practical application, or a basic discovery that changes our understanding of the world. But there will always be a compelling bit of biology behind it. And, as one who has been a biology nerd from childhood, I find this to be as close to a unifying principal of the practice of science as any. At least that I have observed so far.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Welcome to

“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.”
George Bernard Shaw
Author and playwright (1856 - 1950)

I’ve created this web site as a professional tool, since I am currently seeking employment. However, my intention is to add content on a continual basis in the form of blog posts, other original writings, and links to useful resources. I'm particularly excited about blogging, as this genre seems fairly underutilized in the life sciences - but has tremendous potential, and offers an opportunity for the wonderful intellectual exercise of essay-writing. I'm ruminating on several topics for future blog posts already, so stay tuned.

This site is a work in progress as of May, 2007; however, please contact me if you have any questions about my background, interests, or any of the resources included here.