Responding to the simplest questions about life as an academic scientist seems to pose me serious problems. I have written before about the difficulty I have in answering the straightforward question ‘who inspired you?’ because I don’t feel as if anyone did. It was books far more than any famous face that got me interested in science. A more recent question I was asked that I felt completely thrown by was ‘describe a typical minute in your job‘. This was for a US site (The Digits) devoted to encouraging young girls to engage with maths, or math as they would have it. Interviews for a children’s audience are particularly challenging because I have to try to find ways of making sense of what I do in their own terms and the questions aren’t necessarily ones that an adult would think to ask, or want an answer for.
Nevertheless this one gave me food for thought. Trying to describe something that would be sufficiently accessible for an 11 year old and still contain adequate accuracy to be meaningful was far from trivial. Of course the reality is that most of my days are spent at my computer dealing with emails or sitting in committee meetings and I certainly didn’t want that to be my response: not the way to get anyone enthused about science.
In the end I thought back to those moments of excitement that would creep up on me when I still did my own experiments, that sense of exploring the unknown every time I put a new sample in the electron microscope and waited to see what secrets it might reveal. That may sound overdramatic but, for a number of years, that really was the sensation I recall in the years when my own hands-on research was at its most heady and rewarding.
Now I don’t mean to imply my life was full of Eureka moments when the light dawned on me in an instant of illumination. I don’t believe that much of science progresses that way and it certainly hasn’t in my case. Nevertheless there is a wonderful feeling of excitement in having a new sample to hand and impatiently waiting to get it into focus to see what it can reveal. So, for the minute in question, I took the view that it was just long enough (depending on the experiment that may or may not be accurate) to do the necessary focussing for the sample to begin to disclose its secrets.
Of course, one of the challenges about microscopy in general is that a single image can never be taken as ‘typical’. The dangers of artefacts are always lurking just round the corner. A key challenge for every aspiring microscopist is to acquire the skill of knowing what is real and what is suspect and one of my most important roles as a PhD supervisor of microscopy students is to point out what is clearly artefactual and what just might be a genuinely exciting finding. Dampening their enthusiasm when misled by a feature of clearly dubious origin is no fun but an essential part of the training.
For the school child though, that level of detail is irrelevant. There is no doubt that that period when my personal research bloomed, when every new sample could potentially yield some new finding or provide ammunition for our models on the failure of plastics – or, later, the organisation in liquid crystalline polymers – was the most thrilling part of my career. Overlaid by years of only doing research through other people’s hands, however clever these hands may have been, it is good to recall the first-hand excitement that once upon I was privileged to feel. Still, after all these years, I can remember that buzz. That feeling that just around the corner lay another part of the solution and if I kept going a little longer, preparing samples or peering down the microscope, all would be revealed. On one occasion (I am ashamed to admit) I even worked in two adjacent rooms on two microscopes simultaneously. In one case doing a rather slow and laborious process of zapping my thin polymer films with the electron beam to create controlled cracks from which further failure would be encouraged to develop, in the other looking at the results of that failure on previously-prepared samples.
That piece of information did not form part of my answer for the young girls. Such overenthusiasm/nerdiness I think was best suppressed. However, I suspect that if you never feel that ludicrous level of excitement, involvement and curiosity that can keep the candles burning at both ends at least in short bursts, perhaps a research career is not for you. It can’t happen often and it can’t happen for long but it is the most heady of experiences, offset by the challenges of piecing all the disparate bits of evidence into a coherent whole, writing it up to your satisfaction and, ultimately, to the satisfaction of an editor and set of referees. Those later stages are less likely to get the juices flowing although that moment of acceptance may also give a spike of pleasure.
Unfortunately school science is unlikely to give many opportunities for any child to feel the buzz I describe here. The removal of assessment of practical work as part of the A level mark that is just being introduced is a step in the wrong direction. But the reality is school science can rarely provide proper investigative opportunities. The Royal Society’s Partnership Grants scheme, in which scientists and schools (primary or secondary) work together on extra-curricular studies provide one possible opportunity for schools to expose students to genuine enquiry. The excitement of satisfying curiosity forms such a crucial part of the joy of science that it is a shame so many children can never get a sense of it.
As ever a simple, almost naïve question has provoked some serious reflection. Being forced to contemplate what science might have looked like to my much younger self has reminded me of so much that, for me at least, can get buried in the everyday world of professorial life; that life which can now feel far distanced from the actual practice of science.