On the hunt for Professionalism & Science

I left my NYR about developing professionally deliberately vague, because I needed to figure several things out. The direction I want to develop; what constitutes a realistic goal; how is the best way to reach my goals. It feels like I’m still developing as an adult – trying to become the working person I want to be. It’s an evolution that is unlikely to end any time soon, if ever.

Going round saying “I want to be a Professional Scientist when I grow up,” sounds…pretentious? A bit of an odd thing for sure: what’s wrong with simply becoming an industrial chemist?

Back in my first year at university (pre-dreadlock era!) I took this self-portrait shot. It's the only lab coat shot I have to date...

I guess it’s about the criteria & abilities required to count as “a scientist” and “a professional”, rather than the specific role I would choose to take on. A scientist is someone with an educational background in science, who uses scientific research daily in their work. However, a scientist is more than somebody who makes things explode: they hypothesise, they plan & execute experiments to test their theories, they problem-solve in a systematic way, they interpret their data and draw conclusions. Science requires independent thought, creativity and an ability to problem-solve in the dark as it were. A Scientist gets their title for how they think, as well as for what they do.

A professional is somebody with an advanced level of expertise in their chosen field. They keep up to date with the latest research, they are highly proficient when it comes to communication, teamwork and other “transferable skills”. Their extensive experience is kept at the top of their brain; they can draw on it day-in day-out.

I have a helluva lot of respect & admiration for the senior scientists I’ve encountered through my industrial internships: how they seem to see things in a…sharper way than I do. The fact that they don’t have to consult a chemistry textbook or even pause to reel off reagents/mechanisms/reaction names. Sure, they’ve all had over 10 years worth of education to get them there, but I totally want to be like them.

Tragically, I can’t turn myself into a Professional Scientist just by force of wistful envy. It’s a process that takes time – working through a PhD and postdoc then settling in your job in industry. However, I can start looking at myself and working out what steps I can take now to help me later. Or – since I’m currently working in research labs – what can help me a little now and a lot later.

***

I’m back to work after down-time in Fife with the family. I’ve given the matter some thought and received some useful input.

In undergraduate theory courses I never had any issue with organic chemistry: I could always move the arrows in a reaction mechanism and knew that the underlying principles. When it comes to working as a scientist in a lab I need to call on my knowledge in various situations (no longer just when staring at an exam paper) and apply it to problems I may never before have encountered (nor will it be obvious what the solution could be).

Target A: Read new journal articles on a weekly basis. One of the things I like most about scientific careers is that they require a lot of specialised knowledge and that the field of knowledge is always expanding. New papers shed light on old problems, provide easier alternatives and think about challenges in a new way. It’s in my best interest to get into the habit of reading newly-published journal articles to see what is happening in the world of chemistry.

Target B: Reference organic chemistry textbooks with a lot more frequency.  Use journal articles and my lab experiments as “problem-solving exercises”. What is the mechanism for that reaction? Why are they using those reagents? What are the drawbacks to their approach? This year it isn’t going to be enough for me to set up reactions and let them roll – I need to know precisely what it is I’m doing, and why.

Target C. Learn & perfect scientific communication. It’s easy to cut verbal corners when summarising work, describing a reaction or naming a compound. (“So yeah…the experiment seemed to work OK…” “The um [hand gesture] big compound with the double bond.”) To people not intimately familiar with my project that causes a lot of confusion and makes me sound (a) like I don’t really understand what I’m talking about (b) I lack confidence. Always aiming for clarity in speech, without omitting vital details. And without soliloquising (most Chemists aren’t thespians).

Target D. Sharpen the critical attitude. It isn’t enough to look at a spectra and say: “Yup, product is in there – SCORE!”. Exactly how clean is the material? What else is in there? Why is that unwanted compound in there? How do I know it is the product? I should be hearing those nagging & cynical voices instead my head a lot more often, challenging me not to give up thinking and not to meekly accept any conclusion. It’s a slow learning curve trying to figure out what the right questions are…but it has to start somewhere.

Sure I’ll make stupid mistakes in the process – but every single professional scientist out there will have made them before me. That’s how they transform from chemistry graduates into scientists…

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One thought on “On the hunt for Professionalism & Science

  1. Pingback: Why I’m Excited About My New RSC Membership « Standrewslynx's Blog

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