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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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