This past summer, I was interviewed by a reporter who was putting together an article on my work for the MIT Technology Review. It was my first interview with a reporter, and by most measures, it went as I had imagined it would.
"Tell me about your training and background."
"Why do your delivery materials work so well?"
Etc. I smiled, I was friendly. Fine, fine, fine. But I suppose that kind of information is not the most scintillating fodder for the discerning readers of the MIT Tech Review.
So then he asked about the most pivotal event(s) in my scientific career. You know, the kinds of high drama situations that are commonplace among society's most interesting class of people: engineers. Hmm. After some thought, I related a story about how I nearly left my engineering major for the humanities during my sophomore year of college. He didn't seem to like that story. So then I told him about a conversation I had with my dying grandfather that shifted my focus and perspective on my job and my life. It was a conversation that did (and does) impact me deeply.
But I glanced up from the table, over to the reporter, and he had this look on his face, this look that said, "OMG this is the most boring person I've ever interviewed".
What did he want? I contemplated fabricating a story about a cancer-stricken relative or about how I rescued a German shepherd from a burning building and saved his life with some lipids I synthesized in the lab. Absurdity. Just be honest, Katie. You are a remarkably fascinating person in your mind.
So then he asked me to describe my favorite Eureka moment in the lab.
KW: "Eureka moment?"
Rep: "Yes, Eureka moment. You know, like the moment you discover something amazing in the lab and you instantly know that it will change the course of human history."
KW: "Uh, I've never had a Eureka moment."
Rep:"What? All successful scientists have Eureka moments."
KW: "Good engineering science is the result of a series of important moments in the lab. It's not enough to discover something once. It needs to be repeatable. It needs to work well without causing 80 million different kinds of toxicity. Such examination takes time. It takes perseverance."
He stared at me blankly, unimpressed. Apparently, I didn't conform to his notion of a successful scientist.
Weeks later, the article was published as part of the Innovators Under 35 feature. All in all, it was a nice article, and I was genuinely honored to have been included. But I was slightly embarrassed that the article ended by mentioning my lack of a Eureka moment. My friends asked why an article meant to highlight my work ended on a negative note. A colleague, just last week, brought up the article and teased me about the lack of True EurekaTM in my life.
I guess it makes me a little sad. A little angry. It's a popular view of scientific life, but it's grossly inaccurate for most of us. And in a world of ever-mounting scientific pressure, where many are bending over backwards to publish in Science and Nature, the last thing I want to see is people succumbing to the siren's call of glamorous Eureka-driven moments.
I will continue to eschew the pursuit of Eureka in my own lab, instead choosing to get my fill at home. I encourage you to make a similar choice.