March Madness

March is upon us! For the PMCB Firsties, recruitment weekends are over and the last three weeks of Winter Term face us like a charging rhinoceros. Soon, some of us will be choosing labs to call home for the next 4-5 years. Others will be finishing that all important third rotation.  Going through rotations is akin to immigration and exodus. The difference between the two depends on how your PI views your staying and going.

Last night I partook of one of my favorite television rituals: Ninja Warrior. It is a Japanese game show in which athletes of all types try to overcome four obstacle courses and achieve greatness by conquering Midoriyama.  There are rope climbs, rolling logs, cliff hangers, slanted walls, and various other obstacles to clear, all while suspended over cold, muddy water pits. Every year we see the rock stars, called All-Stars, that usually make it to round three of four. Then there are the champions, those lucky three men who have achieved greatness at least once by conquering the grueling fourth stage. And finally, there are the standards, participants like Mr. Octopus that know they probably will not make it through round one, but they still try.

Watching the show last night on G4, I started reflecting on graduate school. Just like there are Ninja Warrior challengers and Ninja Warrior fans, a classmate from my undergraduate years once told me there too are scientists and science-fans.  Scientists are those gifted to carry out the brunt work that is science. They are the innovators, the discoverers, the soothsayers, the wizards. They are the challengers running the obstacle course. Science-fans are the cheerleaders in the stands, those who appreciate science but are ultimately destined for a supporting role. I always wondered: can you only be one or the other?

Watching the show, I realized that those who run the course are fans.  Mr. Octopus is 80 years old if a day, has no reason to expect to make it past stage one, and yet every year he is there at the start line with his octopus, ready to try. The people who run the course do so not because they know they will make it to the end, but rather because they love it.  The challenger and the fan are not mutually exclusive.  And that, I think, is what also distinguishes a science-fan from a scientist. Not everyone is going to win the Nobel Prize. Not everyone studying cancer will find a cure. Not everyone is going to end up in the lab of their dreams. It is the unwillingness to settle, the tenacity to question, and the enthusiasm to positively keep going even at the possibility of utter defeat that characterizes true scientists. So, to my classmates choosing lab homes soon: refuse to settle and bloom where you plant yourself.

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