Thursday, March 24, 2005

Once or twice a year, since just before I finished graduate school, I've gone through a ritual of working my arse off writing a proposal for an overseas fellowship, sending it in, and then getting it turned down six months or so later. This year was no exception, and of course, like all scientists whose grants get turned down, I get extremely pissed off and then go right back to work the next day and pick up where I left off. This year, though, the emphasis was on "work", because unlike the last few times this has happened, I actually have a well-funded job with some medium-term security.

I refined the proposal a number of times, responding to reviewers' previous demands for more detailed methods, until it turned into something that seemed less like an independent investigation and more like a prospectus for a very long high school lab report. I can understand why reviewers want to see detailed plans, especially from someone who is a newly independent investigator, but since every reviewer is presumably a scientist as well, they have to be in on the secret, which is that many of us feel unreasonably boxed in by demands for details before the work is actually underway. What we really want is to go somewhere interesting, maybe work with someone famous, and play in the lab until we find something surprising. The first version of the multiply rejected proposal was more or less honest in that way. The most recent one said, in essence, that I wanted to go somewhere interesting, work with someone who is justifiably famous, and do something that could have been completed by a couple of undergrads supervised by the lab manager. In the meantime, someone else's grad student seems to have done it and sent an article to press.

But, of course, in the meantime, I've gone to an institution that, while not in an exotic location, is definitely an interesting place to be. I'm working directly with a professor who is without question famous in the field, and every day, I bump into other people who -- well, we'll put it this way. If you're an ecologist, a geneticist, or an evolutionary biologist, you've cited them. And, although there are some well-defined parts of my job, I have considerable leeway in how to approach the questions -- and my boss is a big fan of tinkering with stuff in the lab and the field until something interesting comes into view. I obviously can't use huge amounts of the lab's resources chasing answers to tangential questions, but he's a big booster of postdocs and students who keep their eyes open for little questions that could turn into bigger questions and maybe bring in other funding for those little side trips that turn a job into an adventure. So, there's often room for a drop of extra bug juice on the thermocycler block, or a few impulsively inoculated agar plates in the incubator, or a joke about fly poop that lands an undergrad a semester project and a shot at a publication.

And, consequently, for the first time in my life, I'm having so much fun on a job that I have to remind myself to go home at the end of the day.

This really shouldn't surprise anyone. This is what scientists, engineers, computer programmers, and other creative people are like. In fact, the things we like to do are comparable to what a painter likes to do with pigments and textures, a guitarist likes to do with improvised lead lines, and a chef likes to do with food. When we're allowed to play in the lab, we burn a few pots and pans, and maybe when it's all over present someone with a feast. When we're told to follow a research plan to the letter -- hey, would you like fries with that?

I worry about the state of innovation when people at work aren't allowed to go out and play. And, although I didn't get the career choice right on the first try, I can finally understand the prevalent philosophy of my undergrad school, which may not have been such a bad match for me after all.


At 9:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The university should use one of your paragraphs in their promotional material and the other should get sent to every high school science class in the country.


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