Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

On Being a Scientist

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

On Being a Scientist

Article excerpt

[For this column, Phi Kappa Phi correspondent Ethel Cetera once again interviewed Dr. Olivia Pate, a professor of anatomy and neuroscience.--ET-C]

ETC: Dr. Pate, today I would like to ask you about teaching and advising the next generation of scientists, your replacements, if you will.

Dr. P: Well, there's a dance in the old dame yet.

ETC: True. I didn't mean to imply that you would be retiring anytime soon. But what I'm getting at is the care and nurturing of an apprentice scientist, particularly at the graduate-student level. In the United States, young people seem to need special encouragement to enter science careers and to stay in them once they have entered. I believe you have supervised many graduate students in their successful pursuit of PhD degrees. I would like to talk about what it means to be a scientist. But before we do that, could you first just outline the time line and educational expectations for a scientist in your field?

Dr. P: My field, neuroscience, can be considered under the general rubric of biomedical sciences. There is an educational pipeline that issues scientists at the end. It consists first of an undergraduate degree with a strong foundation in science and math, followed by graduate school, typically more than four years for a PhD degree. Most fields of biomedical science do not require an intermediary master's degree. Most, however, require several years of post-doctoral training before a graduate can hold a permanent job.

ETC: What do students study during this time?

Dr. P: PhD students take advanced courses in science and carry out original laboratory research, culminating in the writing of a book-length scholarly work called a dissertation. The research must be of sufficient caliber to publish in scientific journals.

ETC: What should students know to help them succeed? I have read several reports that many of those entering the science pipeline leak out somewhere along the way.

Dr. P: The leaky pipeline is a concern for all science educators. The ones who leave may do so for many reasons. Three that come to mind are lack of encouragement and support (particularly for women and underrepresented minorities), uncertainty about job opportunities, and fears that personal life and a scientific career cannot be balanced.

ETC: Those are all valid concerns, but I suspect not unique to science.

Dr. P: You're right. They are also probably common to any career that requires an uncommonly long period of education and training. However, in science, the production at the end of the pipeline is worrisome. Students may waste valuable years and resources if they leave without completing a PhD or if they drop out as scientists after they obtain their PhDs.

ETC: Well, what insight or advice can you offer to young scientists or their mentors?

Dr. P: First, there is the question of motivation. The right students need to study science. Usually they are self-selected. I believe the essential motivator is insatiable curiosity. Without it, I believe that students should choose other careers.

ETC: But is curiosity enough? I remember a great stanza from Omar Khayyam. It seems to be about a young person's eager curiosity being crippled by education:

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same Door as in I went.

Dr. P: Well, if your point is that education may stifle exploration and creativity, I would have to concur. Even as a mentor for PhD students, I have to be careful to allow them a lot of freedom to take experimental chances and make mistakes. But the person who becomes a scientist, while he or she may be beguiled by the lyrical fatalism of that poem, does not buy into it. The poem suggests that the world remains unchanged by either science or religion. A scientist would find this idea to be profoundly mistaken. …

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