January 8th, 2020

By Joseph Thomas


As the static of the TV crackled, I heard my mom call from the kitchen. She couldn’t understand why I would just sit on the floor and stare into the screen set to a channel with no video signal. As the specks of gray and black flashed in front of me I couldn’t help but imagine I was the captain of a rocket flying through the stars at warp speed. Endless worlds passed by me in an instant and I had a sense that my purpose in life was to explore and catalog these unknowable realms. I knew that space travel was still in its infancy, but I was only five years old at the time and there was still plenty of time for technology to catch up to my ambitions. I knew that we would most likely have spaceships by the time I was 18 and that I would grow up to be a space captain. This is the first time in my life I distinctly remember yearning to explore the universe and find out what made it tick; my first scientific memory.


Mysid, TV noise, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons.


As I grew older I explored other career options such as being a Major League Baseball pitcher, railroad engineer, and garbage man but I always seemed to come back to being some kind of explorer. As the idea of college loomed I was disheartened that Space Captain was still not a viable career, but there was still plenty of exploration to do on the earth as a biological scientist. As a society we have learned an enormous amount about life and how it functions, but we are only just scratching the surface. What could be more exciting than devoting one’s life to work on the fundamental understanding of how life works, and even better to use that knowledge to improve the quality of life of those around you? One day, these technologies will help our species reach the stars and in a small way my work may have contributed. There is still hope for my stellar career ambitions.


Most scientists share a similar story of how they got into the field, but we often fail to talk about our own failures and shortcomings. In high school I struggled with my classes and even came close to failing biology. In college I struggled with mental health and financial hardship and came very close to leaving science all together. Some days experiments may fail, and you will go home never wanting to think about science again. I thought that maybe science wasn’t for me since it was so difficult and appeared to come so easily to others. The turning point came after having some earnest discussions with colleagues and advisors only to find out that they shared the exact same struggles in their careers. These were successful PhD students and even tenured professors, yet they still had doubt in their own abilities. That is when it all clicked. Scientists are human beings. Such a simple concept but a very powerful one. I gave myself permission to fail, as long as I was willing to get back up and try again. The public often views science as a field only open to perfect geniuses, which discourages many people from following their curiosities. One of the most important lessons I have learned is that struggles are normal, and they do not mean you are a failure. Good scientists aren’t necessarily the brightest or most technically skilled people, but they are the people willing to push forward when the going gets tough.


If you are reading this and feel like the odds are stacked against you, I ask you to please just hold onto that curiosity that made you wonder if science was a good fit for you in the first place. Science wants you, and now more than ever it needs people from varying backgrounds. New fields are emerging everyday that are requiring people to challenge central dogma and examine things from fresh perspectives. Science may need brilliant, technical people but even more than that it needs curious explorers who are willing to press on and look for the stars in the TV static.


Joe Thomas