I got asked a question the other day, and it got me thinking. The question was ‘what makes a good scientist?’
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that while there are a number of key traits that I considered central (‘lateral thinking’, ‘good communication skills’, ‘self motivated’), I could think of well regarded professional researchers who were exceptions to each of them. The only skill I have been able to settle on so far as being universal is the ability to critically think.
There are scientists who are team players, and those who are better working alone (for their own, but often also their colleagues sanity). There are plenty of careful scientists with a precise and measured approach to everything. There are also many I’ve come across who are often a little more slap-dash and clumsy, but who churn out excellent science nonetheless.
I also don’t think research scientists are more intelligent than the general population. We’ve been trained to look at problems and think in a certain way, and we draw on a lot of experience and education, but given those factors I think most people could do what we do. There’s nothing in our skillset and abilities that can’t be taught.
It was then I realised what the other common factor is to every professional science researcher I know. A love of the science.
Pay and conditions for researchers aren’t that great. While you’re still in school, the people who started work at 16 will have 10 years of earning and promotion behind them, while you’ve been racking up debt. The PhD process is well known as a tough slog, and you then begin hearing rumours that there are far more PhDs being produced than there are available jobs. If you get lucky you then start a career at a moderate level of renumeration, but requiring years in short term contracts which often mean migrating nationally or internationally.
Despite all that, most postdocs I know love their jobs. Sure, they get pissed off at the moving and instability and the general climate of work, but they still love their jobs because they love doing the science.
There are plenty of people who get their PhDs and have the love of science beaten out of them by the time they finish. Or at least that love is overwhelmed by other needs or desires. And there seems to be a reasonable amount of work available for those people. In fact, these other jobs also tend to get paid a hell of a lot more than those in research. Which again highlights that those who stay in it are generally there for the love of carrying out cutting edge science.
In my quest to give a more comprehensive answer to the question I’d been posed I decided to try and concentrate more specifically on my own type of work – that of experimental science.
Here it is more specifically important to maintain a methodical approach. But I find an almost playful inquisitiveness is also really important. Just this afternoon I was having a conversation with a colleague about the benefits of spending some time just messing around with the equipment and materials you have available to see what interesting behaviours and features can be encountered. In fact, an interesting point came up when my colleague explained that next week he is going to be letting some Masters students loose on trying to model debris flows. He made the excellent point that quite often what they do is crazy and illogical, as they do not have the base of experience to know what *should* happen. But we also agreed this can be a fantastic boon, as they have none of the preconceived notions of how a particular method should be carried out. So while there can be a lot of ‘failed’ experiments, and they learn a lot of lessons about why certain things are done certain ways, both of us fully intend to go and see what they attempt and see if we can’t learn a few things ourselves about what features and flow processes might be investigated with a little bit of a leftfield and original method.
So what traits are essential to your field?
I’ll leave you with a video I put together today showing what happens when you pass gas through a powder material at such a high rate that the material passes through ‘fluidised’ and comes out the other side as bubbling. Stress chains within the material allow conduits to form. I’ve seen it described in many papers, but it’s the first time I’ve played with the mechanism myself, and took the opportunity to use the high speed camera to record it. I think it’s pretty neat – you can see the discrete gas bubbles pass up the sidewall. It was shot at 1000 fps and plays back at about 1/15 speed (30 seconds of video is 2 seconds of footage – timestamp is in the top right). There’s a 2cm grid on the right for scale. For some reason I can’t link to the HD version, so make sure you select the HD option on playback.