There are many ways to live a scientific life in chemistry. The obvious examples are the lives of chemistry faculty. A chemistry prof’s time is split between teaching, managing a research group, grant writing, committees, giving seminars, academic advising and, oh yes, a home life. 

In industry, the life of a scientist can be split between several layers of applied research, management of a budget and directly reporting staff, occasional patent work, meetings, writing reports, and if there is a spare minute, leafing through a journal.

I could have never anticipated the job description that I now hold. The specifics aren’t important for the purpose of this essay. What I want to describe is the extent to which I am constantly juggling numerous diverse, often intractable, open-ended tasks. It dawned on me recently that my job description sets me up for a career of dealing with thorny problems that few want and could or would handle.

Is this shameless self-admiration? No, it’s really a kind of lamentation. It would be nice to do something straightforward now and then. I used to do the advertising. Then we got back the C&EN survey results. I don’t do the advertising anymore. I’d like to meet a few of those rotten commenters … \;-)

Because I share office space with the accounting group, I have the chance to lunch and banter with the bean counters. It doesn’t take long to realize that theirs is a life of well defined tasks with built in cross-checks and monthly cycles. These accountants have their work cut to size and funneled to them by highly formalized and structured norms. Their job is to enforce consistency and eliminate surprises. They express discomfort and fear near the boundaries of their knowledge.

In contrast, scientists are people who seek out the boundary waters of knowledge and actually set up camp there. A scientist is someone who finds a way to acclimate to a life of uncertainty. A scientist knows that ignorance and uncertainty can be ground down with hard work and a bit of luck. Luckily for me, dogged persistance can partially make up for the lack of genius.

But despite the high minded platitudes about the endeavor of science, I’ve come to appreciate washing glassware and cobbling together a plumbing solution to a problem with an apparatus exactly because it is so concrete. Unlike molecules, I can actually see the results of my plumbing handiwork of compression fittings, steel tubes, and rubber hose. Sometimes it is nice to leave the abstract behind and make something simple but sturdy.

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