Do you like food? Of course you do. And so do most of us. It tastes delicious, makes the tummy happy and is a reason to engage in conversations with friends.
Do you like to cook? Maybe you do, or maybe you don’t. Regardless, the people who like to eat far outnumber the people who like to cook.
Now to a more interesting question: Do you like science?
Many freshmen enter Harvard (and other colleges) thinking they like science, only to realize that the science they liked did not resemble the science they were introduced to in college.
For some it can even be a painful experience to redefine themselves from future scientists to something else. Why is this pattern so common?
1) Creating science and reading about science are two separate entities, equivalent to cooking and eating food.
The science one is introduced to in high school (and to be fair, still to a large extent in introductory classes in college) is like food. It is pre-made, and your job is to appreciate it. The science that scientists produce is something different. While you study evolution, scientists research the particular genome of a sub-Saharan primate. While you learn about the different organelles in the cell, scientists spend their lives trying to understand a particular function of the endoplasmic reticulum. In school, we study broad fields, acquiring knowledge in a semester, which took thousands of hours of hard work from devoted scientists to discover.
2) Here is a test to see if you really like to work in the biological sciences:
Would you want to study the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease for most of your research career?
Well, if you did spend your life studying it, you would be lucky. That research field was so hot that Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren were awarded the Nobel prize 2005 for their research about this bacterium. Most research is far more insignificant than their research.
Many researchers spend their lives trying to develop a theory that in the end turns out to be false. Others find something significant, only to find out that someone else did it before them. In short, many scientists do not discover that much. Even the successful researchers only discover tiny pieces of a gigantic puzzle. Hundred years from now, even the Nobel prize winners of today might not be mentioned in the science textbooks.
So almost all researchers have just as much impact on future generations as the average businessman has. What does this imply? Well, if you are doing science “to make a difference”, you are likely to be disappointed. And this is what happens to so many freshmen.
3) You have to not only like the results, but the process itself.
I realized that although I can appreciate biology, I don’t like the process of creating biology (which to me appears tedious and boring). So instead of being a biology concentrator, I chose to concentrate in math. I did so because the process of producing math fascinates and amuses me. It is fun!