A few months ago on a whim I signed up to judge a local school district science fair. But as soon as I did, memories of composting heaps and potting soil, popsicle sticks and paste, paper mâché and trebuchets, all came flooding back. These remembrances culminated in a childlike shame that none of my trifold posters featured anything so cool. There are no blue ribbons collecting dust at my parents’ house, and yet, I am pretty certain that the perennial science fair winners did not end up pursuing science as a career.
But here I am, formerly Mr. “Can dirt make a light bulb glow?” and currently in a lab collecting data for a pittance. I nearly mis-loaded a gel because of these reflections on the past, so I simply reminded myself that, meh, it’s a free lunch.
Weeks passed, experiments got done, and data came and went in its usual infuriating cycle when suddenly, the day of the fair arrived. After checking in and walking around the displays for a quick perusal, I noticed it was rather easy to tell which kids’ parents googled and copied previous years’ winners and which kids directed their own research. More than once I was confronted by eerily similar posters to the ones I had lost ribbons to years and years ago.
I toyed with the idea of telling a nine-year old about how lousy his “Sunny D makes plants grow better” hypothesis was. But that would have been mean.
But then I saw some amazing posters by kids who were genuinely curious about how they could help their neighborhoods harness solar energy; whether soda water boils faster than flat water, and how rocks can lose weight if you soak them in different liquids. These kids clearly pursued what interested them most, put their own posters together, and had tons of fun through the process. Sure, their experimental designs weren’t great and some of their conclusions were erroneous, but they were thrilled to talk about what they learned and, even more impressively, thrilled to listen to what they could do better.
Those young science fair participants reminded me about what brought many of us to the lab in the first place—that thing that gave us the strength to pursue a quest for truth and the thing that empowered us to choose intellectual capital over monetary. They reminded me about the Love.
That’s what I call it, at least. Before we learned about the business-end of science and its endless Byzantine hoops to jump through, there was the Love. You may call it by another name: wonder, ambition, inquisitiveness or what have you, but in its simplest form I believe it is the Love.
The truth is that many of us will leave the bench behind, whether to pursue new employment sectors (consulting, heard of it?) or academic positions (all dozen of them) or to spend lotto winnings (fingers crossed!) or whatever, but something brought us here in the first place, and I believe it was the same Love that those kids exuded.
I imagine I am not completely alone in having questioned my choice to pursue a PhD in biomedical research more than once, and the current state of science as a field has much to do with it. But the science fair awoke something within me that was greater than the vestiges of elementary school shame and even stronger than my fears of the future. Those students reminded me of the awesome power of curiosity.
I urge you to seek out a science fair judging opportunity; find out when the local schools hold them and volunteer. Go shake hands with a tiny scientist and gently explain the difference between “affect” and “effect.” Go be awed by how graphing data can reveal unseen truths like it was the first time. And be prepared to be inspired, because among the trifold posters and construction paper, the Love thrives at the science fair.
About the Author:
Aroon Karra is a graduate student in the laboratory of Melanie Cobb, where he works on characterizing the biochemical basis of MAPK signaling versatility. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org