How curiosity has shaped my career

I am a firm believer that everyone is born a scientist. Why? Because as a baby, toddler and child we are always curious. Whether that is trying to put our toes in our mouth, crawling around to explore with our new found mobility or asking ‘why’ a million and one times to our parents in reply to everything they say. The first few years of our lives are full of curiosity and asking questions; which in my eyes is the first step to becoming a scientist.

Unfortunately, we tend to lose this curious nature as we get older and move through school and beyond. We stop asking ‘why’ and ‘how’ in our science lessons and just take what our teachers are telling us at face value. We lose that instinctive curiosity to want to know more.

But of course I am not talking about everyone. I still class myself as a very curious person. My favourite words in school science lessons were ‘why’ and ‘how’. It probably irritated my teachers a lot – that still seems to be my go to response to something I don’t really understand. I distinctly remember being in my physics class learning about the life cycle of a star. Not my strongest subject right now, but I remember there was something about the nebulas and supernovas that just wasn’t clicking for me to be able to understand it. I needed to know why something happened to be able to fully grasp it. So, I asked my teacher and I remember him saying to me ‘You don’t need to know that, that is degree level physics’!

So I was stuck. I wanted to know more, but I couldn’t get the answers I needed from the only source I thought I had back then. It was that moment that put me off pursuing physics any further out of fear of not being able to understand anything, but also one of the moments where I knew I should pursue a career in scientific research. Why? Well, because if no one could give me the answers to the questions I was asking, I was going to go out there and try and find the answers myself.

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From curious student to research scientist

At the end of my four years studying my undergraduate degree, I had been exposed to a huge variety of molecular biology fields – from neuroscience, to immunology, to physiology. But it was the inner workings of a cell that particularly fascinated me. How all that DNA open and closed to generate proteins, and how those proteins were shuttled around in this teeny tiny microscopic cell. But I wanted to know how all this fitted in with my other fascination; developmental biology. How every single one of us grew from a single fertilised egg into an incredible human being able to walk and talk and everything in between was beautifully mesmerising. So, I wanted to know how everything within those first few cells coordinated to make us us! A simple question really – ‘How do we become us?’ – but with much more complicated questions lying beneath.

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Despite four years of PhD research trying to answer questions to get closer and closer to that point, I am still nowhere close to solving it. Not that I would ever be able to do that single handedly in an entire career’s worth of time – but it is what drove me each day as I donned my blue and yellow lab coats and stood at the lab bench.

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A career beyond the lab bench

So, what’s next for me? Not only has my PhD allowed me to express my curiosity through conducting my own research and answering the questions I find most interesting, but it has opened my eyes to the career possibilities that I can have now my PhD is ending. It got me thinking is there something I can be doing that will exercise my passion for learning even more than research.

I have had the pleasure of meeting so many inspirational scientists who have finished their PhDs and moved onto the most unimaginable range of careers from medical writers, to science communicators, to science journalists, to journal editors and everything in between. Chatting to them and asking more questions about what their new day to day lives involved just made me more inquisitive about whether I would fit in and whether I would learn more and want to ask more questions in that environment.

The answer? Yes! I think I will.

While I have loved carrying out my own research, I have become an expert in a very, very, very small area of science. While that is an accomplishment I will continue to shout from the rooftops about, I’m not sure that delving even deeper into my own very specific research question is going to satisfy me. I want to learn more about the world. I want a broader knowledge and a career outside the lab is going to allow me to do that. But it is the other skills that my PhD has taught me that has allowed me to be able to head down a different path. So, you will have to stay tuned and take this next step with me as I am curious to see how it pans out for me.

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Science blogs, social media and soapboxes

A huge part of my career has been volunteering for science communication and outreach events such as Soapbox Science and Pint of Science to name a few. Two years ago, I started this blog and it has led me onto so many wonderful opportunities to try and maintain that curious spark in the public or the young scientists of the future. I’ve learnt over the past few years that girls as young as five years old start to believe they can’t do careers which are stereotypically thought of as ‘for boys’ like a career in STEM, but I have also learnt through sharing my life as a scientist on social media that the public do have a trust in scientists when they are relatable and personable, and that people will engage with science if you explain in ways they can relate to and in an interactive way.

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I have been pleasantly surprised by the discussions I have had with high school students and members of the public about life as a scientist, about my research on stem cells to big science news like the CRISPr babies and the InSCIght landing on Mars.

Maybe we don’t lose our scientific curiosity as we age after all? Or maybe it is just the way that we are sharing science that is revolutionising this and inspiring us to explore further.

I’m not only inspired by the curiosity of the people that are engaging with me but the discussions push me to ask more questions and refine my opinions and ideas, but also makes me ask myself questions like ‘What if this discussion is sparking an idea in a future engineer to solve a big problem’, ‘How can I make my content more engaging to more people’ and ‘What can I do to improve science literacy and education’. All questions that I have made me incredibly passionate to share more science with as many people as I can and to in still that questioning nature into as many people as possible whilst challenging myself to learn new skills like sign language.

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So, why is all of this important to me?

For us as a society and a population to move forward and advance knowledge, we have to ask more questions and have to come up with new ideas. Something that wouldn’t be possible without the curiosity of individuals. Curiosity leads to new ideas which leads to progress and advancement. The topic of curiosity even emerges in science and technology companies, such as Merck, who have started their Curiosity Initiative in 2016 exploring the four dimensions of curiosity and aiming to close the gap between today and tomorrow.

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So, I have curiosity to thank for getting me to this stage in my career, but it is also the inspiration and driving force for the next steps of my career. I might be leaving the lab bench and not answering my own questions through research, but instead using my skills and passion to help maintain that curiosity in all of you, asking questions about what makes us curious about a topic and how I can help prolong that spark to explore more and delve deeper, in the hope that we all will always be curious about something we are passionate about and be life a scientist for the whole of our lives.

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Disclaimer: This post has been produced in cooperation with Merck after asking me to join their Curiosity Initiative consisting of science and technology-based opinion leaders. There really is some interesting stuff in their curiosity report which will make you…well…curious, so go and take a look. Merck is known as Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany in the United States & Canada. Thanks to Merck for making this article possible. I remained in full control of the idea and concept of this piece.

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What makes you curious? What big or little questions are out there that you want the answers to? And are you doing anything about it? Has curiosity shaped anything in your life? Do you want to know more about what curiosity is exactly? Share your thoughts with me in the comments.

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Soph talks science is in the running for Best Education blog in the UK Blog Awards 2019 and voting is open now! I would really love it if you could help me take the next step in my attempt to retain my crown by clicking here to vote for Soph talks science. All you need to do is scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the heart next to my blog name! It would be the best end to 2018 if you helped me get through to the next round. Thanks in advance everyone! xx

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10 thoughts on “How curiosity has shaped my career

  1. I relate so much to everything you’ve written! I was that really annoying kid who *always* asked why and how and got told that it was university level and all the rest. Ended up going to after school tutorials to talk to teachers and reading uni textbooks …. and being able to then properly understand the foundation of what I had been taught made it soooo much more interesting and I did a lot better too!

    For me, I’ve always wanted to know how things work on their most fundamental level. So when I was much younger, I walked around with a magnifying glass. Then, for my 8th birthday I was given a $20 microscope by my parents and I started delving into cell biology (it always frustrated me that the microscope wouldn’t actually show them clearly). Sometime later I discovered organelles and they made cells work, so then they were my interest. Then biochemistry underpinned how all the organelles and everything worked. I’m now hoping to end up in quantum chemistry/quantum biochemistry to keep trying to work out how things work on their literal most fundamental level- their subatomic components!

    I’ve also heard a lot about how the trait of ‘asking questions’ is often lost during school and I have actually consciously tried not to lose it, much to the frustration of teachers and the absolute delight of others. Even now I read across many fields of science because I just find it so fascinating!

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    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. It is awesome that you had the chance to talk to teachers and read those uni textbooks in afterschool activities. I would have loved that. Maybe it would have helped me grasp things and pursue physics further. I needed it for my A Level chemistry because my teachers were beyond useless and only interested in teaching the high achieving group of boys that sat at the front.

      Wow that is quite a journey of discovery you have been on and it is so inspiring that you wanted to delve deeper and deeper into what you were curious about. Quantum biochemistry sounds awesome. What does that mean exactly though? The closest I have gotten to the quantum realm is watching the Antman movie 😛

      I love reading books and papers from other fields too. I went to New Scientist Live earlier this year and I came away wishing that I had pursued engineering or physics I was inspired so much so now I just have to read more about them and teach myself new skills. My goal is that through social media and blogging I can encourage people to ask more questions about the science in the world around them.

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      1. Ugh, the Antman movie: ‘we’ll compress you to remove the 99.999% of empty space in your atoms … yet they can then suddenly shrink to far smaller than even those particles are. And that’s not a logical or physical contradiction in any way.’ But other things aside, quantum biochemistry looks a lot at different quantum effects, like quantum tunnelling (to speed up enzymatic reactions), quantum walks (photon navigating photosystems in photosynthesis to optimise efficiency and viability of the process) and even quantum vibrations in your sense of smell in your nose! And I’m sure there’s so much more that we have yet to discover because quantum effects can impact all electron transfers (i.e. the majority of chemical reactions) and have a role in affecting larger molecules.

        My favourite teacher of high school (who coincidentally happened to love learning and difficult questions) had done a biochemistry degree and had been teaching for a number of years when she decided that she actually did really want to learn more physics. At the time that she was teaching me in chemistry, she was studying a part time bachelors degree in physics and I can’t tell you how much respect I have for that!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ahh sorry have I brought up a sore spot 😛 I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be too scientifically accurate. Well that all sounds fascinating and now I want to learn more about that. Have you got any good resources where I can read up about quantum biochemistry?
          Wow! That is amazing. I admire anyone who decides to go back to uni and retrain. Is she wanting to teach physics in the end too or is it purely so she can learn new things? I met one of my followers at an event earlier in the year who has a family and has now gone back to uni as an undergrad and aspires to do a PhD and everything in something that she loves. I really can’t express how amazing that is to just follow your heart like that.

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      2. I’m going to reply up here because I don’t think your site allows more than 3-deep comment threads (or my computer’s bugging)! I would really recommend the book “Quantum Biology” by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden which introduces it and discusses a number of fascinating aspects. It was what introduced me to the field and since then I’ve watched talks and read research papers about more of the field.

        I don’t know if my teacher was planning to teach physics, but she’s now left formal teaching to be head of STEM for the entire region (still for the department of education though). It sucked because she was the absolute best teacher, but she’s loving what she’s doing now and she gets to oversee the entire region’s STEM and science and gets to visit and work with all the schools and major science events. But I think the physics degree was more for interest than anything else. As for me, I’m still an undergrad, but 100% going with a chemistry degree (thanks to the same teacher) and following my curiosity and passion to end up in quantum biochem research!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh really? I dont think I have ever had a comment thread go this far so thank you for continuing the conversation first of all. But not sure if it is the site or your computer or what 😂
          I have added that book to my Christmas list. I’m fascinated now.

          Good luck with all your studies and always feel like you can reach out and I can give the best advice or help I can if you need. Always will try to help 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

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