On Being a Scientist, Even If You Aren’t

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On Being a Scientist, Even If You Aren’t

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I am spending my summer in Knoxville at the University of Tennessee for one of the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), studying the toxic cyanobacteria Microcystis and its role in a microbial community. The purpose of the REU program is to give undergraduates a taste of what it’s like to be a graduate student, or even a full-time research scientist. Indeed, my experience has been pure inquiry, investigation, and exploration.

Midway through the internship, I was in my lab on the weekend, slightly annoyed that I had to be there on such a beautiful day. However, it was imperative at that point in the experiment that I did not miss a day of data collection. After performing the necessary cell dilutions and counting colonies from the previous day, I started plotting the data and noticed an interesting trend.

It didn’t end up being consequential; it could have been an anomaly or some mistake that I made earlier in the experiment. But there it was. A trend that no one had ever observed before: the ecological relationship between the cyanobacteria Microcystis (producer) and heterotrophic bacteria (consumer) over a long period of time. Nonetheless, I had discovered it. For a brief amount of time, before I sent the results to my principal investigator, I was the only person in the world who knew this.

It was an exhilarating feeling – the feeling of discovery – and I do not think I will ever forget that moment.

You Don't Need a Ph.D.

Science is the manifestation of exploration in contemporary society. We have occupied every corner of the globe through human conquest and have adapted to survive in every conceivable environment on Earth. Through science, we are pushing the boundaries of what is possible. The drive to discover the unknown is what drives every scientist and is what drove every explorer throughout history to see what lay beyond the horizon. The ability to think critically, to analyze data, to compare sources, to rejoice in the truth, and to ultimately admit when you are wrong are the hallmarks of scientific thought. 

Finding the answers to fundamental questions through science is something that we can all take part in to better the world around us and to help one another. 

Of course, the road to an authentic scientific discovery, like any road to a final goal, is filled with leaps, hurdles, potholes, misleading shortcuts, and incorrect judgements. While I was on course with EPI in Yellowstone, my instructors had us devise our own ecological research idea in the riparian ecosystem we had been hiking around. My project consisted of measuring the frequency of a certain organism that grows underneath rocks in the stream, as a function of water flow speed. Almost immediately, we encountered roadblocks. How were we going to be consistent in the dimensions of measurement? Did water depth matter? What about frequency and type of rocks? Did shaded areas have preference over sunny areas? We did not have the equipment to quantitatively measure flow speed, so we had to rely on our judgement. A seemingly simple question turned out to be much more complex than we originally thought. The actual act of implementing the experiment was much more difficult than posing the question. Like in biology, using scientific thinking in life - achieving reasonable data and running a clean experiment - is half the battle and takes practice and diligence. Even if scientific research is not your career interest, incorporating this idea of complexity when confronting issues facing civilization and the natural world is imperative. The problem is almost certainly not as simple as the face value.

In high school, we are taught the fundamental structure of the scientific method. That is, pose a question, devise a possible answer, develop testable predictions, collect data using a well-constructed experiment, analyze trends, and finally formulate a conclusion that coincides with observations. I never truly understood the power of this simple formula for inquiry until I started incorporating it into my everyday life. The scientific method defines my world view, my political viewpoints, and my answers to philosophical questions. Rather than simply listening to the loudest argument, I critically analyze the evidence, accept ideas that coincide with the data, and reject those that are logically fallacious.

Being a scientist does not necessarily mean designing experiments or studying the laws of the universe professionally. Being a scientist means questioning the way society operates. Being a scientist means accepting that your idea may not be the best one. It means examining the body of evidence and researching when there’s a discrepancy or questions waiting to be answered. It means finding the most efficient and plausible explanation. It means being educated and pursuing knowledge not only for the sake of learning, but for bettering the lives of those around you.

You do not have to have a Ph.D. to be a scientist. To me, being a scientist means being an explorer, a passionate learner, a critic, a skeptic, and a lifelong student searching for that moment of discovery. It means maintaining that curiosity that we are all born with, but few ever keep. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson would say, “I bid you to keep looking up.”  


By Nathan Hadland

Nathan is an EPI alumni and went on the Yellowstone Wildlife Ecology program. He studies Astrobiology at Florida Institute of Technology where he hopes to harness the principles of planetary science in his research to combat climate change. He also researches methods to advance horticulture in Martian regolith for NASA’s plan to go to Mars. His hobbies include backpacking, mountain biking, kayaking, and reading. 

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