It hit me when I was asked to describe the moment that I first knew I wanted to be a scientist. I didn’t know.
I was bone-tired on that warm, rainy evening in March. I had been in the lab since six that morning and had left far too late the night before. The reasons why aren’t important, but suffice it to say, I had just finished a surgery that lasted far longer than it should have and both my boss and I were sick from exhaustion.
This is why I was late, yet again, for a science-writing workshop that evening. Because I had registered for and dropped the course once before (mostly because of my indecision and poor planning), and because I had inadvertently missed the first class (mostly because I was sick), I was trying my very best to show up on time.
It’s fairly apparent to most who know me well, and now to some who don’t know me very well at all, that I’m not the best when it comes to planning, deciding, or committing to, well, anything. And this is why, upon hearing that my final assignment was to write a story about the moment that I first realized I wanted to be a scientist, I cringed and let out an audible sigh.
What the hell was I going to write about?
As I sat there, slightly terrified and very sleep-deprived, I realized that over the course of the past five years or so, I had taken many small steps that had put me on my current trajectory towards becoming a scientist. But there certainly wasn’t any grand plan, big decision, or final commitment involved.
There was no moment.
Maybe I’d write about how I dreamt of becoming a scientist ever since I was a young girl, and about how I’d conduct my own experiments in the garage of my childhood home and read National Geographic magazines in my closet late into the night.
No, that was completely untrue. And it sounded a bit cliché anyway. Thinking back on it, I actually wanted to be a writer when I was a kid and I spent my days creating my own stories and reading fiction.
Perhaps instead I’d write about how I decided to become a scientist in high school, inspired by an enthusiastic environmental science teacher who taught us about the consequences of climate change and the perils of overpopulation.
That was closer to the truth, but was there a story there? There certainly wasn’t anything along the lines of character development or conflict, let alone a plot. And anyway, as a high school student, I preferred the humanities to the sciences.
I stared blankly at the professor, who was still carrying on about the assignment. Could it really be that I had never decided that I wanted to become a scientist?
My mind continued to wander. Earlier that day, my boss had been telling me about his days as a graduate student. While it may have seemed as though I was following in his footsteps, the manner by which we had arrived at our respective paths couldn’t have been more different.
Before he began graduate school, he attended medical school. After, he took a year to construct a plan, deciding exactly what he wanted to study and exactly who he wanted to work with. Years later, as a result of his tenacity and unwavering ambition, he is now the head of his own lab. He works all the time but seems to know with complete certainty that this is the only path for him.
Unlike my boss, I landed here by chance. Over the years I did a few science internships, but also held a number of unrelated jobs. Eventually I enrolled in a graduate program in neuroscience, but at the time, I didn’t have the faintest idea about what I wanted to study or who I wanted to work with. In fact, it wasn’t until my second year that I fortuitously stumbled across my current lab, which I eagerly joined. While we both work very hard, unlike my boss, I have no certainty that this is the only path for me.
It was at this moment, sitting in this writing class and thinking about everything I’ve just relayed to you, that I arrived at an unsettling conclusion.
I didn’t know.
Because of my aversion to planning, deciding, and committing to most things most of the time, often where I am and what I’m doing has been and will likely continue to be determined by factors outside of my control. And because I find most things generally interesting, and because I find what I’m doing right now especially interesting, and because once I begin something I tend to see it through, regardless of how strange it all may seem, here I am.
And so, dear reader, this was the moment that I realized I didn’t know if I wanted to be a scientist. I wish I could have offered you something more, a story with a strong leading character or an exciting plot twist, or better yet, a story describing a grand revelation that happened in a single moment when I realized something more profound than what I discovered at that moment, in that writing class, on that rainy evening in March.
After class I packed up my things and headed back to the lab. Walking alone, I smiled as I thought about writing this story for you. And though I still don’t know if I want to be a scientist, I think it’s a little remarkable how, despite our differences, both my boss and I have arrived at the same place, for the moment anyway. Maybe in the end, tiny insights like these don’t matter at all. Or maybe, because they’re the stuff life is made of, they carry some small significance.
I’ll let you decide.
Christina Hatch is a Ph.D. candidate in Neural Science at New York University. She studies decision making and the subjective sense of certainty that accompanies those decisions. The irony of her chosen research program is not lost on her.