Grad school can really get you down. Between long work days, failed experiments, department politics, and grim job prospects, it’s very easy to start forgetting why we tried so hard to get in here in the first place. I’ve definitely had my moments of doubt about whether or not I really want to voluntarily devote my whole life to this Science thing. But seeing some of the epic scientific successes of humanity tends to really remind me what this is all about.
Not that my accomplishments will ever reach anything close to some of the amazing things that have happened in Science in the past year. But I can imagine what it must be like to be a twelve-year-old watching along right now as a giant robot lowers a mobile lab the size of a car onto a foreign planet while speeding a few yards above its surface, seconds from crash-landing. And I can imagine the wonder of being about to grow up in an era when we have proof that life can exist on Mars, and are sending up PCR machines, then Microscopes, and then maybe even scientists to understand what the hell is up there. I think if I were that twelve-year old right now, I would want – more than anything – to be on that first mission.
Between discovering the particle that physicists have been searching for over the course of five decades, and now Curiosity landing, safe and sound, on Mars, this has been an amazing year. And it’s not over yet. Hopefully, sometime during this Antarctic Summer –maybe before the end of 2012 – an international team will insert a drill through >3 km of ice to collect samples from the water of Lake Vostok, which has been frozen beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet for ~15,000,000 years. I cannot begin to imagine the kind of biological discoveries that each milliliter of those samples will produce.
Science is really hard, and this difficulty often stems from problems that aren’t a part of the discovery process itself. That’s frustrating. It’s frustrating to work hard without reward, it’s frustrating to have your future completely up in the air. Among all the frustration, it’s easy to forget about the pure, unadulterated epic awesomeness that some of us are fortunate enough to participate in. I chose this career because, were I twelve now, I would’ve been sitting at my computer, breathlessly watching NASA feed at 1:30 am today. The fact that, at 26, that’s exactly how I spent my night tells me that I probably made a good career choice. Jumping through the hoops of grad school, as well as all the hoops coming up in the near and distant futures, gives us a chance to participate in one of the most amazing human enterprises ever: 21st century Science. So next time I’m in lab at 3am, watching an experiment that took me months to set up fail, I’m going to remind myself: stick with this, and you might get to be one of the first people to peek at the first samples of Martian life as they arrive on our planet.