Saving Ourselves From Our Ambitions and What Drives a Scientist

Michael Tomasson has a new post on his blog that, to quote the lyrical poet Trey Songz, has me feeling “some kind of way” about my training as a scientist. Michael remembers fondly the pre-college experiences that made him excited about science, the poor grades he received in didactic college science classes that discouraged him, and the first hands on science experiences he had that made him think he might want a career in science.

I smiled as I read it because, in some ways, our experiences are similar. I didn’t have the same cognition as a child that I “loved science” as Michael did, but in retrospect I clearly loved science. I loved  Cosmos and my telescope and almost all of the books I read as a girl revolved around science.  In college, I failed miserably in some didactic classes, mostly because I was bored. But, getting into a lab during my last semester completely turned my feeling about science around.

I can remember that, at each stage of my training (undergrad, grad, and postdoc) I had a lot of moments where I thought to myself “science is the worst decision I ever made.”  Those might be posts for another time, but there are still so many parts of science that bring me so much joy that outweigh those moments.

Yesterday I was away from my office, working on a project with a collaborator, when I got an email from the technician that helped me with my postdoc work.  He has been a technician in my field longer than I have been alive and has helped train dozens of grad students and postdocs. He’s worked with some of the biggest personalities in our field and I was curious about that. So, I once asked him, “Who has been the most difficult postdoc you’ve ever worked with?” Maybe I shouldn’t have asked a question I didn’t really want the answer to. His answer, without skipping a beat, was “Definitely you. You’re ambitious and you swear a lot.”

I tempered my swearing a bit after that, but not my ambition. We spent hours and hours and hours in the dark together, collecting data. To break up some of the monotony, we would tell jokes. Really, really corny jokes.  It made me happy when he emailed me yesterday with a single line of text…

What’s brown and sticky?

It made me feel so warm that he was thinking of me and maybe missing our tomfoolery.  Maybe he was looking back on our experiments with the fondness I did, even when we were both stressed out of gourds at the time. The joy of doing science, combined with the amazing people I’ve known is what has kept me in science. Those experiences of having my hands in the belly of science, combined with seeing the passion in others, has made me love science as a profession.

group hug

I think that’s why I read the following stand alone sentence in Michael’s post with trepidation…

Younger scientists need protection from the ambitions of their elders.

It’s a sentence that apparently also caught Drugmonkey’s eye, although I am not exactly sure why. I think the idea that ambition is a bad thing is a bag thing. I know that there are some that believe that science should be a noble and priestly calling. We should all be motivated by our love of our questions and not necessarily by indices of success.  I think that’s a load of fuckery.

I fully fess up to my ambition. I admit that it is a point of personal pride to be the expert in what I do and to be respected for it by my peers. I want to take over the world.  I want to be the best in my field and I want to be well-funded to explore the stuff I think is important. I don’t want the #struggleplate equivalent of an academic career.


Part of my ambition, however, is a desire to train the best junior scientists. If I am successful, the people that come out of my lab will be successful.  I can see where ambition can be negative when a PI nurtures that ambition on the back of those more junior to her, but it need not necessarily be that way and I reject the idea that my goals and achievements are necessarily the antithesis to those of the people more junior.

But, while I think that my own success can greatly influence the success of those I train, I also worry about infantilizing trainee scientists. Graduate students and postdocs are adults who have already survived a bachelors degree. They sometimes have families or own homes or do other grown up things. Yes, I acknowledge that there are cases of PIs who really fuck their trainees, but I also find myself growing less tolerant of people who complain that “If only their PI had done X..” they would have achieved Y and it’s their PIs fault that they didn’t accomplish their dreams. I say if there is some thing you think you’re not getting in your lab, seek it out and find it. Use your committee. Find a group of mentors to give you diverse perspectives. At the end of the day, whining gets you nowhere. Be a damned adult.

Ambition is not bad.



11 responses to “Saving Ourselves From Our Ambitions and What Drives a Scientist

  1. There’s ambition to be smart enough to figure out what’s going on in your favorite natural system, and there’s ambition to be recognized and to dominate. The former is good, the latter leads to all kinds of crappy externalities.

    As I junior PI, I do (still) have sympathies for people who complain “If only…[their PI had done x/y/z]”–for the boring reason that context matters. The success of a trainee’s research and the adequacy of their training is never wholly due to the trainee or the PI.

  2. Agreed. One must not conflate ambitious behavior with dickish behavior.
    In my own circumstances, I have achieved in 5 years what others have after 20+ or not even at all. If you are not seeking out opportunities and approaching your work with pride, what’s the point?
    Even a person at a low level job, if they perform that job with pride, will be noticed by someone – if not their own boss then by someone else.

  3. hear hear – I think younger scientists (of all ages) benefit from seeing the ambition and enthusiasm of their mentors – it helps them see what is possible with tenacity and a bit of imagination to find ways to get stuff done, even if boring sometimes. Mentors shouldn’t hide their ambition under a bushel, for sure.

  4. physics*chick

    Wouldn’t it be totally uninspiring for a PI to have no ambition? Who wants to follow a leader that doesn’t want to go anywhere?

    And to entirely separate curiosity and ambition is a bit odd. We’re all driven by being the first to see, figure out something in our fields. That’s curiosity, but it’s also ambition.

  5. Agreed. Certainly, ambition fuels good work and I hope my ambition inspires people around me. I suppose it’s a matter of scale and degree–lost in my quip. Ambition for a good result, a publication, a job…yes. On the other hand, I’ve heard PIs refer to the scale of a project in terms of how many post-docs would need to be “burned” in order to get it done. That’s a different level of ambition. And if me and my friends decide we need $30 billion to make 23,000 knock-out monkeys to understand what all the genes do in a animal that throws poo…well, other projects will remain undone. If we could protect a base-line budget for science … if grand ideas could be funded separately…then we could aspire all we wanted.

  6. Isis the Scientist

    Again, that’s not ambition. That’s just being a dick. This is probably just a point we’ll disagree on.

  7. Excellent post. My biggest ambition is that the people I train go on to satisfying and successful independent scientific careers of their own.

  8. Isis the Scientist

    Thanks, friend.:)

  9. So. What IS brown and sticky….?

  10. Isis the Scientist

    A stick!!

  11. All those years ago telling that dumb joke, and I bet you never imagined having a kid leave you a turd in your bathwater.

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