Stay the curious course

Michelle Harvey on inspirational advice to young researchers to stay true to their first love

May 9, 2013

I am an early- to mid-career researcher, and Letters to a Young Scientist struck a chord with me from the very first page. The journey from amateur enthusiast to professional scientist is an exciting, challenging and often difficult one, and Edward Wilson - a Pulitzer prizewinner and one of the world’s greatest entomologists - is well qualified to guide and advise the new generation. Written as a collection of letters filled with anecdotes and well-considered advice, this book is inspired by the author’s experience of the journey from being a young boy enthused by ants to an eminent scholar. Like many in his field, Wilson’s education began when he was a child fascinated by insects in the garden (my own summers spent excavating ant nests feel somewhat validated). He traces his progression through formal education to the establishment of his own scientific research programme.

Pitched at “young scientists”, this book could profitably be read by teenagers with a nascent interest in the sciences who are considering their formal educational options, by undergraduate or postgraduate students embarking on scientific careers, and by postdoctoral researchers seeking to carve out their own niches. But it serves equally well as a source of empathy and solidarity for researchers - myself included - who have recently navigated the rite of passage that is the establishment of one’s own research programme, finding their feet and setting forth on an independent, new scientific direction, the complications of which are generally unspoken. This collection is far from formulaic in its advice, and indeed, I doubt that any one volume could prescribe a one-size-fits- all set of guidelines on how to become a scientist. But it does offer a measure of awareness, guidance and reassurance that will be of great benefit to aspiring scientists.

Letters to a Young Scientist is filled with useful snippets of information, advice on selecting a field to specialise in, enlisting collaborators, and above all, staying inspired and never losing sight of the original passion that sparked one’s interest in science. Wilson draws on interesting stories from his own work to colourfully illustrate his points. Perceptively, he identifies the ideal scientists as dreamers - coming up with big ideas before formulating ways to tackle them, initially thinking like poets and only later working methodically like bookkeepers. He advises imagining yourself looking back on your successful career many years hence and asking, what did you discover or accomplish? That, after all, is what you must set out to achieve. Interestingly, he asserts from personal experience that the ideal scientists are not geniuses. They are instead bright enough to see what can be done and how to do it, but not so bright that they cannot maintain the interest to see it through. He likewise dispels the myth that all scientists must be brilliant mathematicians, which will leave more than a few young scientists breathing a sigh of relief.

Wilson identifies passion as key, but adds that it must be fostered. He describes many PhDs as “creatively stillborn”, with their thesis the end point of their scientific endeavours. In fact, with the conclusion of one’s thesis comes the real challenge - to set forth and undertake independent research in your own right, rather than under the direction of a doctoral supervisor. This process can be daunting and it has been the making or breaking of many aspiring scientists. To secure that initial funding, publish those works and become an independently recognised authority is challenging, and it requires the guidance and experience of a mentor. This mentor is a person who understands the passion within you, sees the potential, and helps you to navigate the early stages, ensuring that your inner fire is not smothered by politics and administration.

Wilson offers wonderful advice on thinking big while being prepared for the small side issues and projects that come up along the way. Peripheral issues, he suggests, have the potential to transform your research, and these possibilities should be seized - he likens this to scientific gold fever. He asserts that we become most devoted to topics that inspire us early on, during our childhood, and we become driven by different goals and loves he refers to as archetypes: journeys to unexplored lands, searching for some holy grail in our field, the battle of good v evil. And, after 60 years of teaching and research, he declares that his feelings and passions for science remain the same: “I did not let them be smothered by the trivial necessities of life, and I hope that, whatever path you choose, neither will you.”

Appealing and inspiring, rather than authoritative and formulaic, because it focuses on the variable nature of our motivations and origins, this book traces all experience, progress and directions back to raw curiosity. Particularly entertaining are Wilson’s descriptions of his ad hoc experiments, which he refers to as entrepreneurship. These fast, uncontrolled and unrecorded experiments (also called, unpretentiously, “messing around”) have included such endeavours as passing magnets over ants to see if their direction of travel could be altered. Small, curiosity-driven experiments such as these are the reasons that science progresses. Preliminary results from informal experiments provide the ideas that fuel the bigger picture. It is Wilson’s frank admission of the importance and enjoyment of such informal work that shows his true love of science.

In carving one’s niche as a scientist, the challenge is to find a topic that is open enough to require new approaches and research, yet compelling enough to find support. Wilson recommends that young researchers stay away from the glamorous topics already attracting funding and winning prizes, for fear of becoming lost, a small figure among more prominent and lauded peers. Instead, he suggests “marching away from the guns” and choosing an area of promise that interests you, and he repeatedly highlights the expanses still requiring attention. Numerous geographical regions have yet to be explored thoroughly, and our estimates of species diversity in the world indicate that there is much exploring, discovery and taxonomy to be performed. In Wilson’s view, young scientists are urgently required to tackle our deficient knowledge regarding biological diversity. We need them.

Although the final chapter, “Truth and ethics”, is short and sweet, it offers some valuable advice on professional conduct. Handling competition, providing credit for original discoveries, honesty and altruism are all highlighted along the path of the noble pursuit of scientific wisdom, and Wilson also covers conceding errors, abandoning work when appropriate resources and time cannot be given and admitting uncertainty. These are issues of professional conduct that are not generally taught, or even articulated, but are learned behaviours. Wilson’s openness in stating these points outright further serves to make this work a thoroughly honest appraisal of what it takes to be a scientist.

I’ve often pondered on the wisdom I wish to impart to my PhD students as they complete their study and move on. How best can I help them avoid my mistakes, steer them clear of obstacles and, most importantly, direct them towards fruitful and fulfilling scientific discovery? Condensing such experience into concise guidelines is difficult. But Letters to a Young Scientist does so effectively, using Wilson’s voice of experience to guide and inspire, as he implores young scientists never to lose their passion or the inner love for science that fuelled them, and to always remember what drove them to play with ants in the grass as a child.

The author

Eminent biologist, late-blooming novelist, passionate defender of biodiversity and indisputably the Lord of the Ants (as a PBS documentary put it), Edward O. Wilson completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Alabama and headed north to Harvard University.

It was 1951. Wilson recalls a warm welcome: “I had a rather weak background in most of the sciences, and even a lot of modern biology, but I was a prodigy in one respect. I knew a tremendous amount, by the time I arrived in Cambridge, about natural history, because that’s what I had soaked up since my teens. To my surprise, I was looked on by Harvard as valuable. Harvard looks for unusual people, and I guess I was unusual in some respects.”

This book’s title, he says, “was inspired by Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and it influenced its tone. I just sensed that it was somehow the right approach to take for young scientists.”

It is dedicated to his own mentors - “two people nobody ever heard of: Ralph Chermock, who was at the University of Alabama, and William Brown, an assistant curator at the time I was an assistant professor at Harvard. Both of them, on meeting me in callow condition, treated me as an adult, an equal. They kept saying to me, don’t mess around; get busy on an important research project. Learn more about that. Come back to me; I’m interested in finding out what you’re discovering. And by gosh, I would have followed Bill into hell if I knew there were ants there.”

Wilson, who recently led field research in Vanuatu (“a glorious time”), says his retirement in 1996 was “probably earlier than I could or should have, but I wanted to spend time on research, travel and writing. Harvard allowed me to keep a suite of offices, with an assistant and library…and the world’s largest ant collection, built up by three generations of myrmecologists.”

“There are so many wonderful things to discover in the world…that it is just very satisfying to live this kind of life. In spirit, ambition and excitement, I haven’t changed at all, I don’t think, from my early twenties. I just have a little more trouble getting around.”

Karen Shook

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