I am a Scientist

Photo by Diane Serik on Unsplash

My DNA is equal parts scientist and artist.

My father’s side of the family is full of engineers, doctors, and physicists. The kind of people who thrive on structure and precision. The kind of people who find comfort on 1+1 always being 2, and who get a sparkle in their eye when the train arrives exactly on time. Hardworking overachievers and workaholics, model citizens with predictable lives, who got married to highly educated peers and filled their 2 to 3 children quota.

My mother’s side of the family is made of painters and poets. The kind of people who thrive on whimsy and spectacle. The kind of people who work when inspiration strikes, and who might wake up in the middle of the night just to look at the moon. The kind of people who recount a trip to the supermarket as a journey to the elven forest. The kind of people who lead erratic lives and who would rather eat a nice meal than save up for an emergency.

As someone in between these two worlds, I had diverse interests growing up. As soon as I learned to write, I started writing poetry in the evenings, in a thick recycled paper notebook. In 1996, when I was 8, I convinced the girls in my class to form a Spice Girls-inspired pop group, with songs and dance routines all created by me (I wasn’t going to let any of the other girls ruin our music with their ideas), and every time we made our parents sit through one of our performances I gave it my all and felt on top of the world. I developed plays and variety shows, which I’d perform at school events and at my Christmas family gathering. On the other hand, I loved puzzles, and joined math competitions like the 24 Game, where you had to be the fastest to figure out a way to get to the number 24 using the 4 numbers in a brightly-colored card. I was also fascinated by Egypt and the Universe, and would binge-watch National Geographic, Discovery, and the History channel (back in the 90s, they only broadcast actual documentaries). Around this time, when I thought about my future career, it was a three-way tie between becoming a famous actress like Julia Roberts, a Nobel prize-winning scientist like Einstein, or an adventurous archeologist like Lara Croft and Indiana Jones. I wasn’t very modest about my ambitions.

At the age of 10, my interests became more focused. I started making fashion sketches in the corners of my school notebooks, and at 12 I made my own Frankenstein-clothing creations at home by cutting up existing garments and sewing them back together. I was now pretty set on what I wanted to become: a fashion designer.

In 9th grade, I needed to choose the field of studies I’d follow in high school, and I had 4 options: Science, Art, Literature, or Economics. Everything in my body told me “Art”, but I took a career test at school just to be sure. It was inconclusive. This was a pretty important decision, so I asked the career counselor, my therapist, and some family members, for their opinion. They’d invariably answer something like: “Are you sure about Art? The daughter of a friend of mine studied design and she is now a cashier at a supermarket. Science is your best bet.”

For context, I grew up in Portugal, one of the poorest countries in Europe, and I think most Portuguese people can be divided into two categories: the ones who are poor, and the ones who go about their lives carrying the fear of becoming poor in their hearts. The adults who surrounded me growing up were mostly in the latter category. They’d tell me horror stories about smart, brilliant people who chose the wrong University degree (arts, literature, and philosophy), and ended up earning minimum wage at some dead-end job (i.e. they ended up poor). They’d tell me that I needed to save up while I was young because I risked not having a retirement fund. Once I’d earned financial security, then yes, I could do what I really wanted to do, but not before that. I remember one of my aunts telling me “A doctor can always write poetry, but a poet can’t be a doctor.” And all of this was said with the best of intentions: they didn’t want me to struggle to make ends meet, like many people in Portugal did.

I had good grades at everything except PE — that was the only thing that I was pretty sure wasn’t my calling. I had the luxury position, that not many children had, to be able to choose almost anything. I could become a doctor or an engineer, and have a guaranteed high-income job in my future. How could I throw that away? How could I choose to be a loser instead? No, I was going to make the right choice. So I chose Science. And I could always do art in my free time.

Once I started high school, I was set on my new career path. I’d become a scientist. But I couldn’t simply be an average one. I wanted more for my life. I needed to be the best. I needed to become famous, revered for my intellect and contributions to the advancement of society. And for that, I needed to keep my grades up. I needed to have almost perfect scores all through high school and university, so that I could later get a scholarship for a PhD, and then start my grand scientific career.

So I became obsessed with having the highest grade in my class. 17 out of 20 was already quite low for my standards. And that wasn’t easy to keep up. I had to study a lot more, and as the study time increased, I started drawing and writing poetry less and less. There was no practical use for these hobbies. They weren’t helping me at school, and I didn’t have time to waste playing around like a little kid anymore.

I loved being the perfect student. I felt an adrenaline rush when the teachers used my work as an example in class, or when they praised me in front of my dad. And I felt deep shame whenever I made a silly mistake on a test. I started to rely increasingly more on my memory and capacity to repeat word by word what I’d read in a book, and to bury my creativity and imagination. I had no use for them.

At the end of high school, it came time to make the final decision: what will I pursue as a career? There was no turning back from this, I needed to make the perfect choice. And to me, the perfect choice was Physics. I didn’t particularly like it, I actually found it quite difficult. But so did everyone else, and so I thought “If I can succeed in the most difficult field of science, I can do anything I want”. It’s the safest possible choice! I also thought that the coolest famous scientists in the world were all physicists: Einstein, Feynman, Carl Sagan. They seemed to be in touch with the Universe’s building blocks, to understand things beyond what regular humans understood, and I felt like knowing that would give me a leg up over everyone else. And the final deciding factor was the fact that my mom, who’d died 5 years prior, had once told me “If I could go back in time, I would have chosen a career in physics,” and it felt right for me to fulfill that dream for her, in her memory. All the signs were pointing towards physics.

So I entered a bachelor’s degree program in physics. I learned about integrals and differentials, about Hamiltonians and Lagrangians, about atoms and galaxies. I studied many famous equations, including E=mc2 (which is in fact not the real equation that Einstein derived, but a simplified version for the masses). To continue being among the best in class, I studied all the time, until my head was saturated with math symbols. I had no hobbies or friends to distract me from my goal. I continued into a master’s degree program, and my life was on track for me to become a physicist. I was planning to do a PhD in Quantum Mechanics, studying the nature of atoms and subatomic particles.

But then one day, I had a chat with my boyfriend at the time, who was also studying physics. “I never hear you talking about physics outside class,” he noted. “Do you even like physics?”

That question caught me off guard. I started to realize that, in my single-minded quest to become a famous physicist, I’d never once stopped to ask myself that question. Did I like physics? I guess I was neutral about physics. I didn’t hate studying it. I liked the challenge, and I liked the look of admiration on people’s faces when they learned what I was studying. But I never once felt compelled to talk about it to anyone. Or to work on it when it wasn’t required.

I started to think that maybe I should consider other career options. A master’s degree in physics didn’t mean that I needed to get a job in physics, I could do other things. So I decided to look for engineering positions instead. I would still be a scientist, using the analytical skills I gained during my physics degree, but I’d be working on more applied things. Things that actually work in practice. Things that had a more direct impact on people’s lives, instead of the theories and conjectures of my physics studies. Instead of writing mathematical proofs that spanned hundreds of lines, I’d be writing computer programs that spanned hundreds of lines, or lab reports that spanned hundreds of lines. It would be the perfect choice: something meaningful to do with my life while still having pretty safe job prospects.

So that’s how I found myself enrolled in a PhD program for Biomedical Engineering, at the age of 23. It was a five-year commitment to build upon the existing scientific knowledge in a very narrow field. And as soon as I realized that the office where I’d work was located in an old grey, concrete building with a broken elevator, I knew this was the right place for me — a University that spent its money on research and science instead of its buildings.

During the first year, I learned everything I could about the field. I read hundreds of articles, I studied books as thick as Bibles, I talked to other researchers, I took courses. And at the end of that first year, I finally had enough knowledge to start working on the assignment that was meant to become my PhD thesis. A new method for improving the image quality of medical scanners.

And when I started implementing the method, it didn’t work. Not because I did something wrong, but because Nature simply didn’t behave in the way that we had expected. Because that’s the cruel thing about doing scientific research: when you try to do something new, you only know that it works after you actually try it.

So here I was, a year and a half into my PhD, with nothing to show for it. I had to change the topic of my dissertation, after having spent a whole year learning about the previous one. And there was no guarantee that the new topic would work. We were relying on chance.

This made me quite demotivated. I wanted to be in control of my career but I couldn’t control Nature. And after working on the same topic for so long I was also getting bored. I considered quitting. “If I quit now,” I thought. “I’ll be a quitter. For myself, for my family, and for my scientific career. Every job interview I have, I’ll have to explain why I gave up on my PhD. And I’ll never be able to look at myself in the mirror ever again.” No, I wasn’t a quitter. I was a perfect student. I was successful. And I’d already invested too much time on this PhD to give up now. I just needed to power through a couple more years of this, and then I’d be done. I wouldn’t even remember that I ever felt this way.

So I continued doing my work, reading articles, writing computer programs. But once in a while, I would get a bit distracted, and I would watch some YouTube videos. And over time, the distractions got longer, and the time I spent doing actual work every day was decreasing. And it got to the point that, some days, instead of working, I would sit on my desk and watch an entire season of Masterchef or America’s Next Top Model. Just mind-numbing trash TV, all while being funded by taxpayers’ money. And I had no interest in cooking or modeling, but I’d daydream about joining such a competition, where you had to use your talent and creativity to overcome different challenges every week. Instead of what I was doing: the dullest, most monotonous job in the world.

I felt guilty, but I continued to show up every day and pretend to work, with a scientific article on my big screen and YouTube open in a small window on my laptop, with the screen tilted in such a way that none of the colleagues sharing my office could see it. I had a couple of close calls, when my PhD supervisor unexpectedly appeared behind me and almost caught me watching a video, but I always managed to be quick enough to minimize the window on time.

In the meantime, several of my colleagues who were also doing a PhD, were being fired by my supervisor, on the grounds that they didn’t work hard enough, even though I knew for a fact that at least some of them were working 10–12h a day coding or doing experiments.

For me, on the other hand, my only goal became to show something new to my supervisor every Monday morning, at our weekly progress meeting. I would spend a couple of hours before the meeting making a nice presentation and coming up with different graphs that basically showed very similar things every week, but I would spin it so it sounded like I did more work than I did. And my supervisor totally ate it up. He kept saying how proud of me he was, complimenting my work.

Around 4 years after the start of my PhD, my supervisor allowed me to start writing my thesis, the final step before I could finish. And for the first time in my PhD, I actually enjoyed myself. It was fun to explain things in my own words, to make illustrations to help with the understanding. I didn’t have many results, but I could turn them into 200 pages, with some creativity and talent.

And so I did, and eventually, I defended my thesis in front of a jury of experts in my field, and I passed. My supervisor said “You are now a doctor”, and as I heard those words coming from someone who had followed me for the last 5 years and yet knew me so little, I thought: “What a fool.”

I got my PhD. I was finally a real scientist. But the immense pride I was expecting to come with it never arrived. I did learn that facts and results can only get me so far in life, and if I want to get ahead and be heard, I also need to know how to sell them to the audience. So I stopped reading scientific articles and books, and instead started organizing TED conferences and learning about persuasive communication. Nowadays, I’m not a scientist anymore, and whenever someone asks me if they should do a PhD, I tell them: “It’s not worth it. Unless you want to lose your trust in science.”

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Lara da Rocha

Lara da Rocha

Writer | MWC Semi-finalist | Improviser | Data Analyst | She/Her. I convert my bad luck into stories (to convince myself there is a point to any of this).