By Jen Nguyen
In many ways, I am living a dream. I’m content. I don’t at all mean that I wish to remain a grad student forever. And I realize that my day-to-day is imperfect. But ask me how I’m doing, and I would tell you I’m “great!” and truly mean it.
There was a point though, when I was pretty down. I had started a new project and felt way out of my element. I couldn’t see where it was going. And as I tried to push through it, I only sank deeper into this sense of detachment. I felt myself changing, but in ways I didn’t desire. (It didn’t help that it freakishly cold outside.)
Thankfully, around that time, I encountered a series of reminders about what I love about science and what I want from my PhD.
One came in the form of the most powerfully affecting talk I have ever experienced. In presenting her work, the speaker reminded me of the fascinating miracle that is life, and why I’d chosen to commit a great deal of my own to study a very small slice of it. Yet, while her work was of considerable merit and her scientific interests aligned nicely with mine, it was how she spoke of them that struck me. I found myself motivated, shaking with energy, brimming with tears.
How did she do this? Never would I have expected to feel such emotion in response to data …or I should say, someone else’s data. (I’ve certainly felt surges of adrenaline when looking through my own.)
It’s not that my chosen questions are of greater “importance,” scientific interest, or social impact than (most) others. (Please afford me a few biases.) I also don’t believe that I have a greater personal investment in my work than others have in theirs. The difference, I think, stems from the widespread notion that science is purely objective.
Of course, there is great precedent for objectivity. I too admire the elegance of those who win us over, not with flourish, but with reason. During this talk however, logic, clarity, and rigor (while exceptional) were not what caused me to well up inside. The trigger, again, was her description of her subject matter. To her, it wasn’t “matter”. It was alive. It fascinated her, and she spoke as if unable to suppress her regard for it.
Kathryn’s seminar reminded me that I’m after not just results, but an experience. In a few years, I don’t want to measure the significance of my PhD by what I learn about bacterial growth (though it’s pretty damn incredible) or by who I can persuade into caring about it. Instead, I want to recall how I did it and why I loved it. With these, I know I will leave MIT more capable and confident than when I started. To uncover some earth shattering science, or to convince the world of the power of microbes – well, that’s the icing on the cake.
Artwork: David Goodsell