So You Want to be a Scientist

Author: Kristina Lenn

Editors: Alex Taylor, Zena Lapp, and Scott Barolo

People say that “love” is probably the most abused word in the English language. I disagree. I think the word that is most misused is “genius.”

I taught engineering at Wayne State University for three years, and the class I taught that was most frustrating for the students was programming. Many of my students would come to me and say how discouraged they were; how they seemed to be behind everyone else; and how they thought they should already know how to do everything. My response was, “If you already knew how to do it, why would you need the class? It’s required for a reason.” In fact, many of them would look at me and say, “You hardly even think about the answer. You just start typing the code and it magically works.” I had to remind them that I’d been teaching for years and programming for almost a decade.

My students tried something, it didn’t work, and they immediately assumed they were failures. What was just as bad was they were looking at someone with more experience than them and assuming that since they couldn’t do the same things that they were incompetent and didn’t have “it.”

Unfortunately, this mindset is not unique to programming students. Too many people believe that only those who are born with an inclination towards math and science can actually be successful in it. Many people in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) tell someone of their field of research only to have that person respond, “Oh, wow! You must be a genius!”

Nope. We’re not geniuses. We just know how to work hard and figure out a way to enjoy what we do.

The idea of “genius,” especially in STEM, that’s ingrained in us is of some other-worldly being that just picks up on every concept and immediately absorbs all information presented to him or her without breaking a sweat. This natural-born prodigy is the next Albert Einstein or Leonardo da Vinci, people we assume were just born knowing how to do their life’s work.

This “genius” myth is damaging to students in STEM fields as it discourages students from even trying. Success in any STEM field takes a great deal of patience and tenacity, not to mention skin thicker than a two-by-four. All scientific projects require a repetitive process of trying, failing, and trying again; and repeating as necessary until your data shed light on your hypothesis. This is why the general perception of scientific Rumplestiltskins being able to spin straw into gold is so far-fetched. There is no formula for finishing in a specific amount of time; you do it until you have a working model.

This concept of immediate productivity is further encouraged by the technology we have literally at our fingertips. We are so used to instant gratification; we can pay our bills, contact friends and family, book flights, and even do our grocery shopping just by tapping on our phones. Everything seems to happen right when we want it to. Not only has this eroded our patience, but also it has served to devalue learning. Part of the learning process is making mistakes, which is actually a step in the right direction as it builds intuition and analytical ability. Learning to be patient with ourselves and giving ourselves the time needed to master material is something that is sorely lacking in much education.

I studied chemical engineering at Wayne State for my bachelor’s and Cornell for my master’s. For seven years before I started teaching, my life revolved around textbook problems and research questions. Some were easy to solve, and others seemed impossible to crack. But when I looked around at the other students, I realized we were all in the same position. We all had to struggle through the process of figuring out what needed to be solved, where we had to start, and what process to take to get from point A to point B.

We made mistakes (a lot of mistakes) which actually served as learning opportunities; knowing what doesn’t work is just as valuable as knowing what does work as it is information for the next problem you have to conquer. With time, we learned to enjoy the process of facing a challenge and became less discouraged when we did not meet with instantaneous success; if anything, it further awakened our resolve to find the solution.

Geoffrey Colvin says in his book Talent Is Overrated that to become an expert at something requires about 10,000 hours of intense study and experience. Essentially, if you want to be an expert at something, you need to be patient with yourself and be willing to invest a significant amount of time and effort into achieving your goal.

Marie Curie is one perceived “genius.” She was the first female Nobel Prize winner, for her work with radioactivity, and the first person to win two Nobels in two different fields, chemistry and physics. But she recognized that she only achieved success from hard work and perseverance, as she so elegantly summed up in one of her famous quotes: “The way of progress is neither swift nor easy.” She understood this concept better than anyone else. Her tedious work with radioactivity is a testament to how well she understood the difficulty of progress. And her challenges had a societal dimension as well: her first Prize was originally only supposed to be shared between her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel, because of blatant sexism.

Even Einstein had to learn things the hard way. He actually caused an explosion in a lab during his undergraduate days at Swiss Federal Polytechnic because he decided that his way was better than the instructor’s.

Also, Einstein graduated second to last in his class in college and was refused any research posts for graduate study, leading to his work as a patent clerk. He had suffered rejection from numerous professors for doctoral work and had to serve in one of the lowliest positions afforded him. However, it was during this time that he wrote four papers that completely changed the face of science and challenged Newtonian physics in a way that no other scientist had before. This doesn’t sound like the typical path of a “genius.” But it is the way of science.

The people who have become leaders in their fields are the ones who are daring enough to go against the grain and try something that seems outrageous. Thomas Edison (the author of the overused yet still resoundingly true statement, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”) was deemed “too stupid” by a teacher but went on to patent over 1000 inventions. Dr. Emily Dunning Barringer was denied entrance to medical school because she was female, in spite of being at the top of her undergraduate class; even after her eventual completion of medical school, she met with sexism at every turn in her early career but still became the first female ambulance physician. Curie, Einstein, Edison, and Barringer forged ahead despite their respective challenges. Some of the most successful people have tried and failed miserably. The difference between them and everyone else is that they don’t let that setback stop them.

We in the modern world have allowed ourselves to stay in the rut of a fixed mindset. Dr. Carol Dweck explains in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success that a fixed mindset is one in which people believe that they are born with certain talents and that they can only be successful with those talents. They are also trapped in the idea that if they are talented in one area, they should never make a mistake in it.

Talk about pressure.

A global mindset, however, allows much more freedom. With this frame of mind, you don’t have to be confined to your obvious talents. You can be successful at anything you want to be! But if you want to achieve success in any area, then you must be willing to put in the effort. With a global mindset, you allow yourself the freedom to learn at your own pace and in your own manner, recognizing that the only thing that matters is that each day you improve on the person you were yesterday.

It’s difficult to develop the mindset that mistakes are just part of the learning process and shouldn’t be viewed negatively. No one wants to feel as if he or she is impeding progress.

But who’s to say that a mistake is a barrier to progress? Mistakes help us develop intuition and allow us to view a problem from multiple facets.

Over time, my programming students learned this valuable lesson, and it was amazing to see the changes in them. They learned to love the challenges presented to them and came alive at the prospect of working on projects that no beginner had ever tried.

If you want to be a scientist, be daring and go for it. Don’t let fear stand in your way of wanting to accomplish something. Trying over and over again is what we do for a living. And most of us will tell you that there’s nothing more frustrating (though it’s equally rewarding) than a career in science.

Remember that setbacks are part of the process, but don’t confuse them with failures. You’ve only failed when you’ve given up.

About the Author

kristina_lennKristina Lenn is a Physical Chemistry and Scientific Computing Ph.D. student in the Geva Lab where she is analyzing the quantum dynamics behind charge transport in photosynthetic reaction centers. She received her B.S. in chemical engineering from Wayne State University and her M.S. in chemical engineering from Cornell University. She spent three years as a lecturer at Wayne State before starting her Ph.D. at Michigan. When she is not busy doing research or writing her next post for MiSciWriters, she is working with the Museum of Natural History as a Science Communications Fellow, volunteering for STEM outreach events, reading as many books as possible, playing friendly games of chess, and writing for her own blog, Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak.

Read all posts by Kristina here.

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