Looking back at the past ten weeks, I spent interning at Gladstone Institute for Virology Research. I am so grateful to have had this incredible opportunity and learned so much about the science world. One of my main goals, this summer, was to try to understand what it is like to be a researcher and connect with some of the Lab members, in order to learn about both the challenges and excitements of working in a lab. One of the Research assistants, who is currently applying to medical school after two years doing research, took the time to talk with my lab partner and me about his experience. As someone not so much older than me, who am relatively new to the research world, I found his comments really insightful. One thing he spoke a lot about was that while labs are often friendly places and there is collaboration to some extent within and between labs, research for the most part is a very individual field. Each researcher is exploring a very specific question that likely no one else is pursuing in the same way. Thus, the individual is likely the expert on that particular question, so if they are stuck, they can ask others for technical help or advise on new procedures. However, the ultimate decision making is left to the individual. This responsibility can be extremely empowering in that one must realize that in order for their project to succeed it is up to them as individuals to make it happen. Simultaneously, this pressure can be very overwhelming especially since breakthroughs are rare and not guaranteed. Not every experiment leads to a revolutionary discovery, and though, you may be on time; you may never discover something significant. Additionally, many important scientific discoveries occurred by accident while exploring a different question.
Paradoxically, though the research process is very individualized, the accumulation of knowledge is collective. All researchers depend on the research of others to build off and develop new questions. They are always reading journals and staying up to date with new discoveries both specifically related to their question and, more generally, in the field. As each new discovery is uncovered, it is added to the ever growing body of knowledge that constitutes our collective understanding of the world. Though, sometimes, it is hard to understand the value of a particular piece of information at a given time, the same fact may lead to an important revelation when looked at alongside a future discovery. In some ways, I view research as one of those Scratch Art projects, where you scratch a way a black paper to slowly reveal an image underneath. Slowly, slowly as we continue to research and explore the world over thousands of years, we are beginning to see a clearer picture. At the same time, research seems to me like a Jawbreaker. Every time you break through a layer you reach a new one. For every answer, we seem to discover that there are a hundred new questions. The more we learn, the more we realize we don’t know; each new discovery is just a scratch on the surface of what there is to find out.
While I have really enjoyed my time in the lab, I do not think I am going to pursue a career in research. I like the creative aspects of it; coming up with new questions, analyzing results, and thinking of new approaches but the slow nature of research and the emphasis on repetition would be challenging for me. I think that I am more suited for a career in science education. The last few weeks of the summer, I interned in the Teacher Institute at Exploratorium Museum. The Teacher Institute runs seminars for science teachers to help them develop curricula and classroom practices that promote inquiry based learning and get students excited about science. Thinking about these two experiences together makes me reflect on how information is accumulated, compiled, and transmitted. Everything we know in science has come from observation and research. Slowly, with tiny discovery after discovery, we have begun to reveal a more complete picture of the world. I was talking to my mom recently, and she said that when she took biology, even though it wasn’t that long ago, there was so much less material because the science knew so much less about how the body works and that some of the things that are considered common knowledge today had not even been discovered at the time. I have been thinking a lot about the main goals of science educations: to what extent is it about teaching content and transmitting the ever growing body of what we consider basic scientific knowledge, and to what extent is it about providing the tools for future exploration? I hope to take what I learned, this summer, and what I will hopefully learn in the coming years to pursue a career in science education, in order to provide students with the skills and information necessary to produce new ideas and discoveries.