When did you realise you wanted to be a scientist? Justin Jee gives you his story
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when I was five. My dad worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and brought home pictures of Jupiter and Saturn taken from space. They were printed on poster paper with a glossy finish, and I would take them out at school and show them to everyone.
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when, in eighth grade, I entered the California State Science Fair. My project: modelling the acoustics of musical instruments using sine and cosine functions. My dad taught me the least squares method, higher harmonics, and Matlab. My homeroom teacher told me my project had too much math.
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when I learned about Mandelbrot fractals and artificial intelligence from my fellow entrants in the California State Science Fair.
It felt like I would never be a scientist when the winners of the California State Science Fair were announced, and I was not one of them.
HIGH SCHOOL: 2002
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when I asked my high school counsellor if I could do a summer internship in Calstate Fullerton’s chemistry department. She replied that the students who worked there were on the school’s Science Olympiad team—her way of saying I wasn’t smart enough.
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when my friends on the Science Olympiad team introduced me to a professor in California State University Fullerton’s chemistry department. We spent summer simulating the formation and breakage of chemical bonds. When our mentor left for a trip to China, my friends spent the afternoons playing tennis.
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when, while working in a chemistry modelling lab, I discovered that a “known” chemical reaction leading to sulphuric acid was wrong. I had imagined the diagrams in our atmospheric chemistry textbook as concrete walls. I became a sledgehammer.
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when I was preparing the figures for my first paper.
It felt like I would never be a scientist when I entered the Siemens Westinghouse Science Competition and lost to my friends who played tennis.
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when I worked in a natural products lab. We travelled to the rainforests of Ecuador to collect endophytes, the fungi and bacteria that dwell inside plants, and hauled them back to the lab in Ziploc bags. We held gladiatorial matches on petri dishes: our endophytes versus Staph, Candida, and any other pathogens we could think up. Our goal: to discover the next penicillin. We never discovered the next penicillin. However, we found some fungi that could eat through plastic.
It felt like I would never be a scientist when my dad left JPL to avoid the layoffs rippling through his department.
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when the graduate student who mentored me accepted a post-doctoral position in genomics at Harvard and again a few months later when I got into NYU’s Medical Scientist Training Program.
GRAD SCHOOL: 2010
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when the coolest thing I could think of went from Jack Bauer to slime molds
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when my graduate advisor and I debated the origin of life, each of us using more and more refined mathematical ideas to outwit each other, citing ever more obscure biological facts, delving deeper into the logic of how a primordial RNA world could evolve.
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when our paper describing a model for RNA world evolution was attacked on a creationist blog.
It feels like I’ll never be a scientist when I hear that the lab down the hall lost their NIH grant and had to drop a postdoc; or that there are three hundred graduate students and postdocs for every open faculty position; or that experiments show that scientists value papers based on what journal they’re published in rather than their content.
I know I want to be a scientist whenever it’s late at night and I’m working processing the results of a high-throughput sequencing experiment; or when I’m trying to solve a hard probability problem; or when my head is so full of thoughts about evolution and crazy things we can do with microbes that it’s going to explode.
Will I be a scientist?
Life is an experiment. Let’s find out.
A student in New York University’s Medical Scientist Training Program, Justin Jee has written about being a scientist in Science and The New York Times. He currently works in the labs of Bud Mishra and Evgeny Nudler studying bacterial antibiotic resistance and is supported by a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship.