My friend recently showed me a page from the FermiLab website called, “Who’s the Scientist? Seventh graders describe scientists before and after a visit to Fermilab.” The students provided drawings and descriptions, with most “Before” pictures fulfilling some stereotypical portrayal of the mad scientist—male, white, wearing a lab coat, clearly not in possession of a comb. In his “Before” description, Dan S. wrote, “I picture a scientist as a genius. I think they can usually calculate almost anything. I think of weird experiments and bottles of chemicals. Also I think of big explosions and atoms and molecules.”
Dan S.’s speculation that scientists are able to calculate anything was magnanimous. He was right that calculations are necessary, though, which is why my calculator sits prominently on my desk at lab. Beside it are wrinkled protocols I use for dissection and harvest of cells, and on those protocols likely sit wayward cells–escapees from my dissection tools. There are the requisite papers related to my project (which I’ve read, I swear), as well as my dusty review book for the Graduate Record Examination, the standardized test largely required of any student applying for a US graduate school (which I’ve read, I swear).
Lately I’ve been more engrossed in the reading I do on the shuttle to lab: Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. GEB, described as “A metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll,” is an epic exploration of mathematics, history, art, logic, and cognition. Surprisingly accessible and funny, it’s certainly been keeping my brain in shape.
My lab notebook, hardly as riveting, is flipped to a page with the design of a recent experiment. Underneath the scribbles and edits is the original plan—nothing ever goes quite the way you expect in science. As a burgeoning scientist, I’m constantly aware of that fact. Still, the stars or exclamation points drawn around some of the charts in my notebook might be worth it.
I anticipated frustration when I moved into this line of extracurricular activity, so tacked onto the corkboard in front of me are photographs of friends, family, and panoramic views; a fortune cookie slip that says, “Begin. The rest is easy”; and a piece of artwork painted by an artist named Bren Bataclan. Bataclan began “The Smile Boston Project,” a street art installation where he leaves original paintings for passersby to take for free, in an attempt to expose more people to art and smiles. His bright, friendly paintings are cartoon-inspired, and mine has attached to it a single sheet of paper that says, “Everything will be alright.” I found the piece outside a dorm one day, as other students either ignored or did not notice it. The painting’s message often reminds me that science can involve stumbling upon a piece of a story too. You just have to keep your eyes peeled and remain open-minded about anything you’ve found. Including what basic science and life as a scientist entail.
After his visit to the FermiLab, Dan S. wrote, “Scientists are normal people just like us all. They do the same things and act just like us. Most of them speak foreign languages. Scientists aren’t always stuck in their offices. They have lives outside of the labs too. Some like to do outdoor activities; others like to read or do things inside.” It’s true, as evidenced by my cluttered desk. And I even keep a comb in my drawer.