You grow up learning about the different career choices that you can have. There’s the usual – fireman, police officer, or doctor. You don’t expect to hear about the researcher.
As a kid, I watched my parents do the typical 9 to 5 job. My dad, a nuclear engineer, and my mom, a cashier at the local supermarket were out of the house and at work by the time I was heading to school. They didn’t quite follow the 9 to 5 rule, in the sense that they left earlier in order to come home earlier, but their hours were pretty routine. I always assumed that, because my parents always had a regular schedule, that all jobs must be like that.
When I began doing research at the National Cancer Institute in my hometown, as part of my high school experience, I experienced first-hand how the 9 to 5 rule didn’t apply there. Some days, I would spend just a few hours working in lab, and some days, I would find myself heading home at 7 pm after a half day of school. I hardly imagined research being so time-consuming. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy my time in lab. In fact, it was the exact opposite. Most days, I wouldn’t even realize that I was leaving at dusk.
In the three years after freshmen year of college, I spent my time balancing classes and laboratory work, as I did in high school. It wasn’t uncommon that I contemplated whether I should finish my problem set due tomorrow or finish the cloning that I needed to do for lab first. And more often than not, I found myself having midnight “lab parties” with the other undergraduate students. It wasn’t until the next day that I would question my career choices, but I was generally too busy thinking about what needed to be accomplished that day to complain.
Now that I’m in graduate school at Stanford University, I’m finding it much easier to have a healthier lab and class schedule, just due to the lack of classes taken in graduate school. My time now is far more flexible than ever before, and I can spend more time delving into the research. I appreciate the fact that I can think more about my project on MHC–TCR interactions, learn more about this immunological field, and observe other interesting research that is happening.
Just a week ago, the Nobel Prizes for Chemistry and Physiology or Medicine were announced, and two current Stanford faculty, Michael Levitt and Thomas C. Sudhöf, celebrated with colleagues and students. The party for professor Sudhöf was situated in the foyer, just down the hall from where I worked. It was a surreal experience to watch people gather around with cameras and excitedly taking pictures of the man whose fame exploded over night. Despite the chaos, I distinctly remember how he felt about his prize. He mentioned how excited he was that his research, performed over a decade ago, earned him a spot among the greatest scientists in the world. However, despite the time that has passed, he is still excited about his research today. Every new discovery, big or small, is exciting as the last discovery. You rarely see professors retire from their positions, and if they do, they still spend the majority of their time involved with research in some way.
This is a general theme in research. Those who enjoy research don’t see doing research as work. Instead, it’s a lifestyle. You may not work the typical 9 to 5 job that others do, but that’s because research shouldn’t be seen as a job. Just because you leave the lab, doesn’t mean that your work is over for the day. Instead, your work travels with you, and you constantly think about your research at home while you eat dinner, or while you take a shower, or when you wind down for the day lying in your bed. When you see research in this light, the discoveries, whether big or small, are what drive your passion for research.
When I leave lab, I’m not really done with work for the day. I realize now that the time I spent in high school and in my undergraduate years doing research was well spent. I didn’t do it because I needed to do it. I didn’t do it because it was a means of income, especially since there are far better careers to earn money. I did research because I enjoyed the creativity and the problem solving. I’ve never felt that I have had a “real” job, since all I’ve done, at the core of it, is explore the biological world with complex techniques and incredible technologies. What’s most surprising in this line of work is that there is always something new to learn. And, because of that, I doubt I’ll consider my research as complete, that is, something that I’ll leave behind at the end of the day. I’ll never be done with my research; but, that is part of its charm.
Marvin is a PhD candidate at Stanford University in Immunology. He was an editor-in-chief at the Caltech Undergraduate Research Journal. See it at curj.caltech.edu. Follow on twitter @Marvzipan. firstname.lastname@example.org