Generally speaking, scientists do not appear to be happy people. And by scientists, I refer to those actively doing research at academic institutions. No hard feelings for those who are not–I have no experience with industry, and my impression is that others in science-related fields (but not active research) appear somewhat more relaxed–yes, perhaps even happier.
For this reason, it’s all the more important for scientists today to stop, smell the
flowers formaldehyde once in awhile, and celebrate various accomplishments. A graduate student’s first paper, receiving a fellowship, graduating, being accepted to a good lab for post-doc studies, more papers, more fellowships, a good job, an academic tenure-track position, success in running a new lab, the first independent papers as a PI, receiving independent grant funding, tenure, being chosen for important committees, teaching successfully, having students vie to rotate and be in your lab.
Where does it end? For some, it may be a Nobel prize. But they are few and far-in-between, even for those whose research is regarded as stellar. Is it peer-accorded respect? The invitation to deliver seminars at other institutes? To be asked to review grants and papers? Being selected as an editorial board member? Or does it become the desire to be a National Academy of Science Member? Or just to get one’s name in such exclusive journals as Cell, Science and Henry’s thing-a-ma-jib with the letter N?
During the course of a recent party at my house in honor of a just-graduated student who was moving on to a post-doc position, I was able to disengage from the crowd and think about some of those difficult questions for an aspiring scientist–when would I happily retire (when I get to that age, of course–although it’s not that far away)–what would I need to be able to say about myself?
Well aside from the regular yada-yada about what my specific contributions are in membrane trafficking–the field that I work in and love–surprisingly, the answer came to me fairly quickly.
One of the enjoyable things about the party was the chance to visit with a former student who graduated a couple years ago from the lab and is currently concluding a relatively short post-doctoral stint at Harvard. One of the reasons for her return to our venerable town–aside from coming to congratulate her former student colleague on her graduation–was to say good-bye. She received a much coveted Assistant-Professor tenure-track position from a new and somewhat “westernized” institute in India. These are extremely difficult to come by, as there are massive numbers of highly qualified and successful Indian scientists applying for these positions.
Well, perhaps this is it. No matter what course my research and career takes from now on (and hopefully I will be satisfied with it), this may be the answer I have been seeking. I have served my “scientific-evolutionary-purpose” by passing on my tools and trade to the next generation. Perhaps that is the measure of all things.