In the summer before I started my final year of high school, I read two books that shaped my desire to become a scientist: Brenda Maddox’s ‘Rosalind Franklin’, and ‘Doctor Nam’ by Elisabeth du Closel. Both biographies vividly described the exhilaration of biological research, and the hard work that goes into it. They also highlighted the interpersonal dramas that are inextricable woven into such discoveries. But, most importantly, they demonstrated the undying passion these great scientists had for their cause.
There are three pillars that I believe make a great scientist:
Passion Scientists have an innate drive that motivates them to interrogate the living world around them. They enjoy uncovering patterns and links between genes, proteins, or organisms. Scientists typically do not need to be told what to do because, naturally, their passion pushes them to take the necessary initiatives. Good mentors and bosses recognize this in young scientists, and their role is more to guide (and sometimes rein in!) students to stay on track during their PhD or postdoc. Passionate teachers take the time to explain complex ideas to their trainees with enthusiasm that is infectious.
Patience Science is complex and complicated. The intricate functioning of the living world is only revealed piece by piece, little by little. Even with a well-founded hypothesis in a controlled environment, experiments don’t always go to plan. I won’t lie and say science is easy. It’s not! It takes long hours and perseverance. You need the patience to overcome the failures and the passion to keep going. But sometimes, in between all the experiments, it’s good to stop rushing to ‘generate data.’ Give yourself a break to think about what the results actually imply so that the next logical step becomes more obvious. While your PI might never suggest you do this, I find that doing this helps me focus and allows me to think of new, better ideas and hypotheses.
Team spirit One major factor that helps when experiments go wrong, when you’ve had a long day, or when the figures just don’t add up: your colleagues. They’ve been there, done that, and might even have advice for where to troubleshoot. Science is so big, you can’t do it alone! Of course your team mates will also be there when it’s time to celebrate your achievements! I think the best scientists are those who seek collaborations, communicate results clearly, and actively support those around them. Academic research can be quite a solitary pursuit, depending on the lab your work in. When you consider your next career move, try to determine whether the members of the lab generate and work in a good atmosphere, where collaborations and new ideas are encouraged to flourish.
I wanted to share this with Bio Careers’ readers because these are the characteristics I have come to value the most in scientists I respect. These traits are just part of their personalities. While you’ll learn skills and techniques during your scientific training, some intangible factors can’t be taught. If you’re thinking of pursuing a career in academia, consider whether you have a natural drive and the stamina to chase your research dreams and to motivate the scientists around you.