A Real Scientist Talks About Science

Cushla McKinney


You do not go into science for fame or fortune.  That is not to say there is no such thing as a rich and famous scientist, as numerous historical and contemporary examples attest, but it is neither a short nor easy road. Training takes years and, given the speed with which new technologies are now being developed, is an ongoing process.  As a researcher in a tertiary institution my income is uncertain, with a shelf-life of 3 to 5 years unless I take up a teaching position, and my work only as good as my next grant application.  Nor is the current career structure very friendly to women or men who want to either have a family life, or remain hands-on at the bench.  The expectation is that one progresses from PhD to postdoc to running one's own lab — a role that involves overseeing the work of others while you juggle writing grant applications, papers, and the requirements of an increasingly bloated regulatory structure.  All activities intended as least as much to justify your research funding as to disseminate information. Unwillingness to continue past a certain rung on that ladder is not viewed particularly favourably by grant bodies (or, in some cases, one's peers).  Somewhere in between the paperwork it is sometimes possible to do some actual experiments, which often involves long hours of work and analysis only to conclude “Something's gone wrong somewhere”, “Damn, my theory was wrong” or “hmm, I need to do another experiment.”

So why am I a still a scientist, and why do I want to continue to be one? I think the biggest reason is that I see it not as a job but as a vocation.  It is a way of life and of looking at the world that is as much a part of my life outside the lab as it is within it.

Although I enjoyed science at school, I'd never really considered science as a career. I was either going to be a ballerina or a doctor, and fell into biochemistry by accident, when ill health forced me to pull out of medical training.  It didn't take long for me to get hooked! I began to learn things like why grass is green, how the millions of individual cells in my body function together to make me who I am, and what strange biological machines viruses are.  As I did so, I started to look at the world in an entirely different way.  I'd never stopped to think before how amazingly complex and fantastical life actually is.  Nor had I realised that there are still so many things that we still don't understand-and therein lies the real opiate of science.  I have the opportunity of discovering something that nobody has ever known before.  The rush that comes when you find yourself staring at a page of results and suddenly realise that what you are seeing is entirely new almost defies description.  An intellectual orgasm, perhaps?   It certainly more than compensates for the hours of boredom, frustration and despair, enough to keep me hanging out for my next knowledge fix.

Science is not just about being an eccentric recluse in a white coat (although we have our share of those).  It is a way of life, of looking around yourself and asking “Why?” It is about not accepting what people tell you unconditionally, and requiring some reasoned argument or verifiable proof to justify their position.  It is about taking nothing for granted, and being prepared to re-evaluate you assumptions in light of new evidence.  It is about the opportunity to continue learning new things your entire life, and means the world is a constant source of surprise and wonder.   This means all of us can, and should, be scientists-whether or not we have PhD after our name or Dr before it. And that is what and who I am, whatever I do in the future.