Wednesday, August 19, 2009

This Isn't What I Signed Up For

Let me start out by saying that I really am not complaining. I do love my job (most of the time) and the fact that I get to be the first person to ever know something about the genetics of human beings is unfailingly cool - even though it is usually something that other people wouldn't find that interesting. But it comes to my attention quite often that the reality of research is very far away from the concepts and challenges that first drew me to science.

Punnet squares transfixed me when I was 12 and I first came to love genetics. Now instead of Punnet squares, I apply statistical algorithms of varying degrees of complexity to determine the likelihood of two brown-eyed parents having a blue-eyed child yet I tell my students that it is 1/4 (just the way I learned it was 14 years ago) even though I know that isn't true. Once I reached undergrad, I got to spend my time running PCRs and determining genotypes by gel electrophoresis. It was like a miracle every time I mixed clear liquids together, heated and cooled them and then ran them through some glorified jello to produce glowing pink bands that told be about a person's DNA. Now I spend my time in front of a computer writing bits of code (with about a 5% success rate) to manipulate the genotype data I payed someone else to generate.

The point is this: I came to grad school because I love genetics and now all I do is statistics and computer programming. While these aren't my favorite things, I have no beef with statistics or computer programming the problem is that I thought I would be doing "Genetics" - amazing things like what I read in my text books. What no one tells you is that the breakthroughs that make it into textbooks are the culmination of an entire lifetime of work boiled down to half a paragraph. Only Darwin and Mendel get whole sections. The reality of any job that we dream of, even ballerina and astronaut, never quite matches the way we imagined it. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, nor something I'm just now realizing, but it is something that I have seen strike many of my friends and colleagues.

People who loved school and pursued degrees in art history, theater, meteorology, anthropology, English, and so many other exhilarating subjects found that there aren't really jobs where you get to "do" English or art history or anything else. For a few of the lucky ones, there are jobs that use their skills but usually not in the way that they had hoped. For an even more select few, we get to do what we wanted. And because I am one of those lucky few, I am truly grateful. I do get an occasional rush from research that I don't get anywhere else. But it was a knowing smile I gave my student the other day when he came in to talk to me about double majoring in Anthropology and Philosophy. I hope he enjoys writing copy.

1 comment:

  1. Do not fret Querida. Soon you will have your own minions to do your statistics and other undesirable research. I think of your current situation as akin to a maverick detective who has been assigned to paperwork because of their unorthodox methods: you may have gotten the mayor shot, but you get results.

    Also "doing" English is as unappealing as you would think.
    Muah Muah!


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