Tuesday, 24 September 2013

A real scientist?

When can one call themselves a real scientist? I guess in case of other jobs one has to be paid for what they do to call themselves a professional. In case of being a scientist I also think one should be active in their field, doing research and preferably publishing papers.*

Recently though I felt like a scientist. And let me tell you, it's an amazing feeling.

As I mentioned before I have been awarded a grant from the Genetics Society (@GenSocUK) to do a summer project this year. It has been a great experience, the people in the lab, staff and visitors, have all been very friendly and supportive. I've learnt new techniques, got to play with some cool machines and got to actually do a bit of proper science. It was more than that though: I also tried to help out visitors in the lab and I discovered just how complicated a "simple" analysis can be. Learning how to use R alongside attempting to use several programs I have never even seen before to deal with my data has been challenging. I never knew people still used DOS for anything. I think the last time I saw DOS before this summer was when my home PC was running Windows 98. I'm still waiting for algorithm-paper-nightmares to come. I don't have anything against maths in general, but when I open a paper and it has more equations than words I know it's going to be a very long night. Then again, I think this is what it's about. About learning, discovering, trying, sorting problems out and overcoming all those little, but-oh-so-very-annoying difficulties.

It was however after the project itself that things somehow shifted for me. It wasn't just one thing, but a whole series of smaller and bigger events. The Genetics Society organised a series of workshops at the UEA where all their grantees could present their work as well as work together during several activities. It was good to see what others did and the range of project topics was definitely worth noting too, I think we all learnt something new and were pleased to meet so many great people. The whole thing was fun, but also educating - I think this is what 'school' was supposed to be like! Presenting my project at the workshops definitely gave me a little bit more confidence too. I got asked to present my work to three labs in our department next February and I agreed to do it, hopefully it will go alright. This is the first time I got asked to do any scientific presentations outside of my degree. Nerve-wracking, but also exciting! Similarly, I got several emails from various people asking me for advice and help with programs, data sets, primer design etc. and to my surprise all those people are higher up the scientific ladder. It's flattering and I'm very pleased that I'm finally getting to a point where I can be of use to the community.** Even if it is in such a tiny way!

I was also lucky enough to be able to go to the Biology of Spermatozoa conference. It was brilliant, with crazy-smart, but really nice people. I loved the atmosphere and sharing of the unpublished work in progress. It was great to be able to talk to people about science and sperm without getting some silly looks too. I just tried to explain what my Masters is going to be about to some colleagues at a training session for work the other day and they looked at me like I was slightly mad. Just a bit, but still, "better nod along and don't make eye contact" sort of reaction. Strange reactions never stopped me from telling people just how awesome science/sperm is, but it tends to be a one way conversation, where they ask what I do and then try to change the subject before I go into too much detail - all excited and waving my hands around. But at BoS we could all get excited about sperm rather openly! The conference was also followed by two days of CASA workshops where once again all things science were cool - including a nearly jump-up-and-down excitement while watching fly sperm twitching under a microscope.

I feel very blessed that I could be a part of it, all the talks and the less official dinner chat were very inspiring. It was strange, meeting the people you know and admire because of their work, because of what you think you know about them and finding out that they are even cooler in real life than you imagined. I hope that I can become a real scientist and always be a part of this amazing community.

*When I look at it like that I'm not a scientist yet. I don't really get paid and I haven't published a single paper. But I got some small grants to do projects and I'm trying to get bits and pieces of research in (it should get better seeing as I'm about to start my Masters!).
** People with proper scientific jobs are probably laughing at me here...

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