To my students —
I was walking down the hall, and saw you all in the interaction room. I saw you bent over pages of calculations furiously erasing what you thought was wrong. I saw you at the white board, insisting that you didn’t understand the “right answer” and would never be able to get it. I saw you idly staring out the window, wondering if you’d made a terrible mistake and maybe science isn’t right for you.
Stop erasing. You were right.
There is no “right answer.” You will get it.
You didn’t make a mistake. Science is right for you.
I have every faith in you, and your abilities. I know every one of you will be a great scientist, and contribute to our profession in ways that will make me swell with pride, and point at you and say, “that was my student, once upon a time.” It may not be in ways that every science faculty member on the planet appreciates, values, or can even understand. But I have faith. I know the world needs every one of you. And I can see more clearly than you, because I’m on the outside looking in. I have faith in every one of you. It makes me get up every morning, and come to work; it makes me answer your emails at 2am in the morning.
This time in your career is far and away the most important. This is the time that YOU are deciding who you are going to be as a scientist. This is the time that you are methodically organizing your scientific knowledge into the system that you will use to examine the world around you for the rest of your career.
I was reminded of this in recent days because the report card of Sir John Bertrand Gurdon has been circulating wide and far across the web. When Gurdon was a teenager, he attended the independent boarding school, Eton College, where he ranked last out of 250 boys. His science teacher was quite adamant about Gurdon’s skills on his report card. Let me quote what it said: “…he will not listen, but will instist on doing his work in his own way. I believe he has ideas about becoming a Scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous, if he can’t learn simple Biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a Specialist, and it would be sheer waste of time, both on his part, and of those who have to teach him.”
Why does everyone care about this? Because Sir Gurdon is a developmental biologist who just won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. Not too bad for someone who shouldn’t be in science.
During the years of your training, you are going to cross paths with many professors who have many ideas about what it means to be a scientist, and even more ideas about what it means to be a good scientist. They will think they know something about your future in this profession.
Professors like to hear the sound of their own voices. We have been trained (and are currently training you) to believe that what you think is always right. This is, of course, completely contrary to the principles of science. Yes, there are things that do work, and there are dearly held beliefs that we hold to be true. But in the advising of students, as in science, we cannot possibly know whose intellect and approach to science will yield fundamental new insights into the mysteries of Nature.
Do your work in your own way; there is no right way. Like all of us, your work will have to survive rigorous scrutiny and skepticism. Some of your ideas will be wrong, but that’s alright. That’s the aperture to finding out what is true. Adhering to “the norm” and doing things “the way everyone does things” may be fine at McDonald’s, or in a dentist’s office, but it is not the best way to do science.
Sometimes you will be told something about your abilities and your prospects not out of spite, but out of honest concern for your future and because we are telling you something we believe to be true. Graduate school will be too hard. There are few jobs, and the nerds from Princeton and Caltech will get those before you. Your grades aren’t perfect, so that fellowship is out of reach. Blah, blah, blah.
The worst part of all of this well meaning advice is that it preys on the deepest fears that you hold about yourself, festering in your brain late at night while you’re lying in bed with sheets tucked up around your neck to protect you from vampires (is that only me? Oh. Well you get my point.) I like to keep the Sunscreen Song in my mind during those long dark tea times of the soul: “Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.” You are the only one who knows what the deep wells of your passions and ambitions are capable of. Take advice for the well meaning intent it was given, then make your own way.
I was once told by a full professor, early in my graduate career, that I wasn’t cut out to be a physicist. I didn’t have a deep grasp on science, I didn’t have the ability to amount to much of anything in this discipline, and that I should probably be looking for a career outside of science and teaching.
I am only a mediocre scientist, I suppose, especially compared to some of the brilliant people I am privileged to call my friends. But I love science, and can’t imagine a day when I don’t get up in the morning and think about science. I have had a great career that I’m sure many would be envious of — I’m a tenured professor at a research university; I had the chance to have awesome postdoc experiences; I have worked at and work with NASA, the biggest brains on the planet; I often manage to help students be unconfused about science; I have colleagues around the world who aren’t embarrassed to say hi to me in public in front of other big brains; and my mom and dad are proud of me.
But my real legacy, is all of you. When I am long gone, and returned to the star stuff from whence we all came, someone might look back at my life in science and ask what I did. The only answer that matters is that I played some small role in keeping every one of you engaged and passionate about getting up in the morning to think about science.
You are all going to do great things. I have faith in that fact, and I’m proud of all of you.
Now get out of the office and go play frisbee. If you’re reading this, or staring out the window, you’re stalling because you’ve been sitting at your desk for too long. Go play frisbee, and let your mind wander. Science will still be here when you get back, waiting for you. There is something new to be discovered, something wonderful, and I’m pretty sure you’re going to be the one to find it. You just have to ignore the rest of us.
With much admiration and respect,