Tuesday, December 9, 2014

I Wasn't Supposed to be a Scientist

I seem to be missing a popular piece of the Scientist's Story. I've never written a personal essay describing my budding childhood passion for All Things Science. I have no recollections of conducting experiments on grass clippings or stray beetles. I am not like Bob Langer, who often describes a critical time in his childhood when he received a chemistry set capable of basement explosions.  An ordinary Sunday in the Langer household, and boom! - one of the greatest scientists of the modern time was synthesized. Nothing so profound ever went down in my parent's house.

I had undefined beginnings, and perhaps was one of those well-rounded annoying kids that found interest in (and was good at) most things. When I was applying for college, I debated English vs. Chemical Engineering as a major. Practicality won out (the first true sign that I was actually an engineer).

If we were to do some sleuthing and seek out the TA from my freshman year chemistry lab, he or she would probably be floored to learn that I have become an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University. You see, no one would ever have guessed this based on my freshman chemistry lab reports.

I distinctly remember that we did an experiment on Partial Molar Volumes. The experiment involved measuring volume X of water, volume Y of ethanol, mixing the two volumes together, and then measuring the resultant volume. When I conducted the experiment, my final volume was Z, where Z < X + Y.

My 18 year old brain nearly exploded and said, Wut?!?!?!! It cannot be!!!

And so I concluded that I did the experiment incorrectly and proceeded to write an entire lab report on all of the sources of error in my experiment. I did not receive a good grade*.

How on earth did I get where I am, in spite of these earlier signs that I had no business in this business? Somehow, these mistakes were overlooked. I overcame them, I suspect, only because I am willing to repeat experiments and accept results as reality when they are reproducible. I was not a lost cause, but I'm not sure anyone would have predicted that I'd turn into a good scientist.

As a professor, I'm constantly called upon to evaluate students, potential students, former students, and even other professors via peer review. And I have to ask myself, at what point can I look at a person's body of work, CV, or lab report, and be able to accurately pass judgement? To predict what he or she will become or be capable of discovering?

People are dynamic and amazing, a compilation of successes and mistakes, circumstances and genetics. We are always evolving, and always capable of becoming more than we are today.

Upon reflection, all of these experiences have forced me to place less credence in the importance of a person's background (particularly a young person) and to look more favorably upon a current desire for achievement and an underlying enthusiasm for the task at hand. These are things that cannot be taught or given. When it's my student, I can teach the rest, as someone once did for me.

*For those who are unaware, there is often a change in volume upon mixing of two components, attributed to the packing limitations of individual components. Best visual example is to take a liter of rocks and a liter of sand - when you mix them together, the sand will fill in all of the holes between the rocks, and the total volume will be much less than two liters.

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