So you want to be a Scientist…?

This Thursday I’m going to a local school to talk to kids about careers in science. I love doing careers fairs because, as I mentioned to someone on Twitter the other day, I’m more than a little enthusiastic about science.

Puppy

While I’m at the careers fair, I’ll be shamelessly self-promoting this blog (I even have snazzy business cards for it!) so I thought it was only fair that I made sure the current blog post was relevant for any young proto-scientist thinking of starting a career in science.

So today I’m going to list a few things that I think would help, if you are considering a career in science. They are based on things I wish I had learned when I was younger, and things that just weren’t possible back in the days before social media.

#5. Read blogs

See this thing you’re reading, right here? This is the future of science communication.

Well okay, probably not JUST this blog, but also others like it, are amazing places to read up on current trends in a huge variety of specialised fields. And because these are often written by the researchers themselves, they are a diverse example of writing styles, and often a much more approachable way of reading up on research without having to rely on the science-illiterate press.

Just to get you started, here’s a selection I would recommend as a great way of seeing the range available.

  • DeathSplanation – a great PhD blog, lots of current news discussion (via the medium of GIFs)
  • Super Bugs Lab – the front page currently has a picture of mouse with a luminescent crotch…. ‘Nuff said
  • Green tea and Velociraptors – a dino blog about …. wait, the front page of this one is apparently about dino-crotches!
  • A Chemical Education – all about chemistry; no crotches.

#4. Learn to code

No matter what field you want to work in, I can guarantee that you will greatly benefit from having some kind of coding experience. Having the flexibility to design your own programs for running experiments, for data analysis, or simply for automating a repetitive procedure, has been a useful tool in pretty much every project I ever started on.

Mindstorms
Drag and drop coding, my favourite

Getting into coding can be tough. The first ‘coding’ I ever did was from the Lego Mindstorms kit. Simple languages like that are a fantastic place to start getting your head round the logic behind coding projects. But to be honest, the best way to get into coding is by finding a reason to code.

Sitting with a giant book called ‘how to learn Java’ is a terrible way to learn coding. A much better way is to find something you are passionate about and learn some simple code around that. My personal suggestion is Minecraft – the modding community is really supportive to newbies and there are some very simple how-to guides to get you started.

Or if you want to start with some basic logic programming, then there is a google project called Blockly, which will get you thinking like a computer.

#3. Social media

This is an extension to no. 5, but it’s so important I felt it was worth a number of its own. In addition to blogs, some researchers are very active on Twitter and are more than happy to offer advice to aspiring scientists.

twitter-circle-icon-150x150Twitter is particularly good for following real PhD students, Post doc researchers and Professors, as they navigate their way through research. For many, Twitter is their way of explaining their work to a wide audience, and it can provide invaluable insight into the kind of live/working environment you can get into.

I’m biased, but I strongly recommend that you follow me – I try to talk about both my research and life outside of that research, to give an overall picture. Below is a list of some other good people to follow, for intresting science stories and insight.

  • @FakeAstroPix – This is a passionate account about debunking fake astro pics and highlighting the really amazing ones.
  • @Science_Grrl – A network supporting women in science; really friendly, really helpful people.
  • @RealScientists – A very cool rotating twitter profile that has a wide range of researchers manning it.
  • @JohnRHutchinson – Biomechanist who mostly just does research that is 2x as intresting as anything I do.
  • Anyone else that I follow! I’m pretty descerning and ruthless, so if I’m following them they must be intresting 😛

#2. Grow a plant

This is probably more aimed at anyone with an interest in biology but it also gives you a great insight into trying things for yourself.

I’m a terrible gardner, I have a hate-kill relationship with almost anything plant-like. But they are fantastically cheap science kits that you can use for your own experiments. Plant science is a central part of the biology syllabus and one of the rare things you will be taught that you can go home and test.

Experiment 22b: Fire is not a friend of the plant
Experiment 22b: Fire is not a friend of the plant

For example, you might have learnt about the soma stoma [thanks for the typo spot @KTInvasion] and how the plant transpires from the underside of the leaves. This transpiration is critical to the uptake of water from the roots. You can prove this quite effectively by feeding a plant water laced with food dye, and then measure how long it takes the dye to reach the top of the plant. If you repeat this experiment (after letting the plan recover its original colour) but this time coat the undersides of the all the leaves with Vaseline, the Vaseline blocks the soma so there is no transpiration and so the uptake of the dye should be greatly reduced. And if you leave the vaseline on for long enough, the plant will die.

I realise this is a pretty basic experiment but the important thing is that you are not just accepting what the text book says, you are investigating it yourself.

#1. Buy a telescope

I have to confess that this advice is actually from Patrick Moore, who was not only one of the greatest science communicators of the last 50 years but also a fantastic gamesmaster. (reference to an amazing 90s TV show that no one will get)

Even in cities, you can still see something of the night sky and a myriad of mysterious little lights. Even as a biochemist, I find the night sky utterly fascinating and I get a little rush when I finally find the winking red hue of Mars. To me, there is something inspiring about the scale of the night sky. But ignoring my misty eyed romanticism, like plants, it’s a great place to do your own research/science – which is a skill you can transfer to any field you want to go into.

Draw a map of the night sky from where you are. What you’ll be able to see will depend highly on where you are in the world, and even more on the amount of light pollution in your area. It’s also worth remembering that the night sky is very, very big and there are plenty of examples of amateur astronomers spotting things that no-one else has ever seen. And even if you don’t see that, then there are plenty of cool meteor showers to watch.

21024_firstscopeteles_large_1Most of the things on this list should be accessible to anyone, but I understand that not everyone has the same opportunities, and something like buying a telescope might not be possible for some people. So in addition to all the great advice offered here, I’m going to give away a TELESCOPE!

Rather than just randomly give it away on the street, I should add that this is going to be a competition – sort of… I want to give away a telescope to someone who will benefit from having it.

So if you want to enter the competition, you need to be studying either GCSEs, A-Levels or the International equivalent, and I’d like you to write a short argument (any length will do, just write as much as you think is enough to make your case) as to what you would do if you had a telescope, and why you are a good person to give it to.

The competition will be open to entries from now until the 1st of March, after which my proof-reader and I will go through all the entries and pick a winner and TWO runners-up. The winner will get a cool new telescope and the 2 runners-up will get…err…some stuff I hadn’t actually planned yet, but it will be not-rubbish 😀

To enter fill out the form on this page HERE!

UPDATE: Competition over. Well done to our winner, I hope your enjoying your shiny new telescope

2 Comments for “So you want to be a Scientist…?”

says:

Very pleased to see “learning to code” on here. I’m not an expert coder but good enough to be able to automate boring jobs is great. Even looping through files to produce plots is a massive time saver and you know that each has had the same treatment.

says:

As a plant biologist, I agree, learning to code is essential to academic or non-academic science, and pretty darn useful outside of science. Why doesn’t everyone just learn how to code? Also, as a plant biologist, I agree that killing plants can be fun and interesting! Perhaps I am biased because I work on invasive species. Finally, as a plant biologist, I think you mean stoma (plural, stomata).

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