My name is Meg, and I used to be a scientist, a chemist to be specific.
Today, I got an email from ResearchGate (think Facebook or LinkedIn for researchers) telling me that 20 people have said they read the paper my Ph.D. thesis was based on. It’s been about 6 years since that paper was published, a little more since I ran a gel, did a Western Blot, prepped cells for flow cytometry, or waited on a radioactive Thin Layer Chromatography plate.
I suppose I am still a scientist, since I did get that fancy degree in chemistry and I use my scientific thinking skills every day in my job as a software engineer.
Do I miss it? Sometimes. I miss parts of it.
I don’t miss trying to debug a 3 week long experiment with 30 variables, nor do I miss running an experiment for the hundredth time to get the “perfect” picture for a publication. I’m not sad that I missed a six year postdoc experience and the resultant penury.
I do, however, miss the thrill of discovery when an experiment first works- the “Aha” moment where you truly push back the frontiers of science ever so slightly (though the joy of fixing a hard software bug is more frequent). I miss the feeling of working on something purely to understand more about how it works. I miss the downtime between experiments and having that time to think deeply about scientific and other problems. I miss looking at cells tagged with Yellow Fluorescent Protein.
Some things are, however, remarkably similar. Debugging is similar to running experiments (though way faster in most cases): Observe what is not working. Create a hypothesis about why said code is not doing what it is supposed to. Perform experiments to get to the root cause. Fix. Other similarities: I spend my working hours with thoughtful people. There are not many women in my field. People outside the field see only the victories (code incorporated into product features, research that makes the news or wins the Nobel Prize) and not the long, sometimes painful slog to get there.
I keep telling myself that someday, maybe, I’ll work on scientific software and move seamlessly between my two worlds, the old one and the new one, and help move science along in a different way.