(This is a guest post from Isla Myers-Smith, early-ish career academic at the University of Edinburgh, with a conversation at the end with Gergana Daskalova, an undergraduate in her lab)
Sometimes I like to worry about why I have chosen a scientific career path and the meaning of life and big esoteric questions that really have no particular answer. I have wondered many times why do I push myself so hard to succeed in science? I know the pipeline is leaky for early career scientists and many choose to leave the Ivory Tower to make different contributions with their careers, but at least for now, I have stuck with the halls of academia and here is why.
Way back when I was a first year MSc student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, I took a course in stable isotope biogeochemistry taught by one Matthew Wooller. In that course, each of us had to do a small research project to answer a question with a few samples that could be run at the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility. My project involved looking at deuterium and oxygen isotopes in Sphaghum leaves from a peat core at my field research site to test for changes in soil moisture/water table depth over time – if I remember correctly that is. We prepared our samples and then a few weeks later the data came back from the lab.
Surprisingly, Mat handed out our printed results wrapped up in wrapping paper with ribbon – our “data present”! And then he told us (I am paraphrasing from memory): “If, when you are unwrapping this data present you feel the same excitement that you felt as a child at your birthday party unwrapping presents, then you know that science is the career for you. If on the other hand, you feel no real excitement at revealing these data, then perhaps this isn’t your best career option.”
Matt had introduced us all to the “data present”, a concept that sticks with me to this day. A data present is the moment when a dataset is analyzed for the first time and the result is revealed. It could be that moment when you press run on your R code once all the bugs are fixed and you finally get that model to work or that figure to print. It could be when your student presents an amazing analysis at lab meeting and reveals their preliminary findings on a manuscript they are working on.
My students and collaborators know that I just can’t resist a “data present”! I will stay up late at night to reveal one or, if I don’t bother staying up to finish it, I will lose sleep thinking about what an analysis might show. I even have to hold my self back from revealing other people’s data presents for them, when collaborating on analyses, as some of my colleagues will no doubt be aware. I am a total “data present” geek. I love them!
And it is this passion for “data presents”, that is very reaffirming for me. Every time I feel that excitement when I get a data present – when I see a question answered for the very first time – I know that science is the right career for me. If I am ever feeling overwhelmed by the stresses of academia, I try to devote some time to getting back to analyzing data. And then I usually quickly regain my love for the at-times-all-consuming job of being an ecologist.
Like Mat, I have been sharing the excitement of data presents with the early career researchers that I mentor and teach. I try to emphasize that it is really important to take a pause sometimes, and ponder why we do the science that we do. For me, the concept of a data present is an incredibly powerful way to remind myself of my own personal scientific motivation and to answer that reoccurring question: why am I a scientist again?
Response from 4th year undergraduate student, Gergana Daskalova, University of Edinburgh:
The data present idea is similar to ‘data kittens’. FemaleScienceProfessor discusses the disappointment after getting a kitten (result) that is just not as cute as she hoped it would be. I am not sure how to feel about being disappointed in results – they are what they are, not ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Obviously some results would make us happier than others, some results have wider implications, etc. As a conservation scientist in training, I would be sad to find out that the recovery plan for my favorite birds is not working. I hope that when that time comes, I will be able to put my emotions aside, ask ‘why?’ and carry on working.
If we continue with the data present analogy, another question to ask ourselves would be with what, if any, expectations do we unwrap a data present. As scientists, we are (or aim to be) unbiased, but then we are also people, with personal interests and passions. So are we the kid who didn’t make a wish list and is just happy to get a present, or the kid who knew exactly what they wanted, and upon unwrapping a present that wasn’t on the wish list, quickly moved onto unwrapping the next? Wish lists seem like a rather dangerous thing to make in science, as I can see how there could be a thin line between really wanting a present and really wanting a certain kind of present outcome.
I haven’t had many presents to unwrap thus far in my career, but some, especially the most recent ones, have indeed felt like my birthday – but if a birthday present doesn’t live up to its expectations, how do you deal with that disappointment? I would imagine that your attitude towards ‘the day after your birthday’, as well as towards ‘your birthday itself’, has an impact on what kind of a scientist you are, and whether being one is really the right thing for you.
Reply from Isla:
For me the excitement is there regardless of the result, and the only disappointment is if the answer to my research question is still not clear. Data presents are about learning something new that potentially no one else in the world has ever known, not so much whether the answer meets my preconceived expectations, or at least I hope that is the case. I was chatting with one of my PhD students this week about one of the key parts of a manuscript or proposal, and one of these is the place that sets out the anticipation for the soon to be revealed data present: “If we find this… this will mean this, if we find that… this will mean that”. It wasn’t until I was post-docing with Mark Vellend four years ago, that I finally understood how setting up your results in your overall pitch, can allow others to share in your “data present” enthusiasm, whether your findings do or do not support your hypothesis.
What do you think of the concept of a data present? Is the first time you analyze data like opening a present for you? Do you feel this excitement is part of the reason why you became a scientist/or why you have stuck with science as a career? What was the best data present that you ever opened?