Dr Katie Bouman. If you have been on the internet and looked at any science content this week you will know that name. Dr Bouman played a critical part in developing the algorithm that enabled us to successfully obtain an image of a black hole for the first time by assembling the data collected by eight radio observatories.
If you have heard the name you have probably also seen the picture of Bouman’s face released by the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT of the first time the data to form said picture as part of the Event Horizon Telescope Imaging team was processed. That look of wonder and astonishment at what she had achieved has been filling our screens, and rightly so. It is not every day years of hard work pays off to get such an incredible result.
Now not all of us can have a breakthrough as ground-breaking as Dr Bouman and the teams involved, but that wonder and astonishment is something that under the pressures of modern-day academia (and the ‘publish or perish’ environment it presents) seems to have been forgotten.
Time and time again I have seen people get so wrapped up in the details that anything they achieve, small or large, doesn’t emote the kind of response it should.
When I was younger and I envisioned myself working in a lab, being a “proper chemist” in a white lab coat and lab specs, I saw myself having this same sense of wonderment at every single reaction that I put on no matter the outcome. I was that excited just at the thought of doing something that someone had never done before, the prospect of finding out something new, and the notion that I would be advancing human knowledge even if it was not a positive result as there was still something to be learnt from what I had done.
I lost sight of this during my PhD but there are a few who do still have this sense of wonderment at what they achieve in the lab, my partner being one of them. Every new result, whether it is what he tried to make or not, gets that same reaction although sometimes accompanied by a sigh or two, and we can learn something from that.
I am not saying that we should all act like little children opening presents on a birthday or at Christmas over every single thing we do, but we should take a bit more time to allow ourselves to celebrate getting a result that may have been days, weeks or months in the making.
Too often “imposter syndrome’ or a similar such feeling makes us feel guilty for celebrating, or that whatever we have done is not good enough because X, Y or Z could have been done better. We need to ignore that and allow ourselves to feel that sense of pride and achievement so obvious as you look at the face of Dr Bouman.
Looking back at my time in the lab as I prepare to move on after recently finishing my PhD, I keep coming back to this feeling and thinking that if I do end up moving away from the bench I will not get that feeling again and it keeps me wanting to stay in research.
After all, even if you don’t get the result you were hoping for, synthesise something you were not planning to, or crystallise a by-product instead of your desired product, in all likelihood you are the first person in the world to do that. Sometimes we just need a little reminder that working in science, whatever field you are in, is pretty incredible. Even at Masters research or PhD level you are doing something no one else is likely to be doing, and we as scientists are pretty awesome because of it.