Thursday, March 28, 2013

It's the little things that (you) count

  "I didn't think I would be doing all these little annoying things as a scientist!" I'm paraphrasing a graduate student's recent complaint, but the sentiment is familiar to grad students and postdocs. Tagging along with the amount of writing we do, the amount of small tasks we deal with seems incongruent with the big science we want to do. And it's hard to tell a new undergraduate, or to realize as a grad student, or to remind yourself as a postdoc, that those small things necessary and essential to the big science. What do I mean by 'little things'?
In my case, it was counting hundreds of pieces of charcoal fragments. Making thousands of lines on digital images. Renaming samples for the fifth time to get the right format for a new program. Running the same analysis over and over...while changing just one variable at a time. When you hear about the Higgs Boson particle discovery or the importance of gut bacteria in weight loss, you don't think about the lines of data graduate students combed through and analyzed to get a final image, did the gut sampling, or getting the data organized for analyses. Many, many times, with eye fatigue and sore necks, we wonder if it's worth it.
  And that's when you ask yourself the question: why am I doing this? And I hope you answer: because I think this organism is neat, or I think I know how to solve this problem, or there's someone out there that needs this. A Masters or PhD or any advanced degree is a slog, a slog you've chosen, a slog you chose because you were naive and excited and smart and wanted to know MORE. The small things have to be done for that to happen. When training new scientists, I hope the emphasize that they get to do cool things and wear a lab coat, but they also have to wash glassware and measure out aliquots. We know science isn't glamorous, but we know the big picture will come from the little things. It's not 'science hazing' in that we're making the undergrads do the dirty work (well...maybe a little). We're making sure they understand the steps and procedures that make science rigorous and groundbreaking. At least, that's what I'm telling myself after getting a manuscript back with requests for more analyses and corrections. Putting one foot/word in front of another will get me to that submitted paper. I'll get a wrist brace to guard against carpel tunnel, get some reading glasses for computer work, and try to think of my adorable organisms out in the field whilst hunching over my computer. Keep up the good fight!

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