Looking back in time

Over the summer Anna Perman, Ben Good and David Robertson and I produced a multimedia blog, Inside Knowledge, which was published on the PLoS blog network.

One of my favourite posts that we put together was called ‘Back to the future‘. We asked members of the research group we were embedded with what they thought they’d when they grew up. This is the response from Dr Adam Hill, one of the senior members of the Imperial Blast group:

“Ha…no, in short! Superhero, yes; Surgeon, maybe; Engineer, occasionally; Soldier, possibly; But Scientist, never! However, it is the one profession that combines all of my childhood aspirations, allowing me to dream, tinker and solve everyday.”

I think Adam’s answer highlights how many don’t even think about science as a career, and I suspect many more do not understand what being a researcher actually entails. So I put it out to you – What did you want to do when you grew up? Did you consider being a scientist?

19 thoughts on “Looking back in time

  1. Was a science teacher for 27 years – now a science adviser. I was born in 1953 so was the right age to be completely captivated by the space race – sputnik, Gagarin, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo …. for years I just wanted to be an astronaut.
    In those days, it seemed that to be an astronaut you needed to be a pilot, so the RAF was also a goal – funny how I didn’t realise a science background would be useful until quite late on.
    So, not an astronaut – but still get really excited about science!

  2. To be honest I never thought about being a scientist when I was growing up, and even when I was doing my science degree I think I only seriously thought about actually working as a scientist a handful of times.

    That said, I’ve never really had a clear idea of what I should be. The two that stand out from my childhood are “video game designer” and “lawyer”, and thank christ that I never pursued the latter of those. I left uni and started working as a lighting tech in theatres, and I think I even applied for a bunch of Australia’s spy agency graduate programs. Fortunately for national security, nothing ever came of that.

    If you told my 23-year-old self that I would a) work with kids or b) be a public speaker/performer, I’d never have believed you, but there you go. I guess the lesson is that I have no idea what I’m doing and should never be trusted for career advice.

  3. I wanted to be a vet when I was at school. Then I did work experience at a vet’s. Drawing a veil over that, I ended up discovering psychology and studying that at poly, and loving it, and realizing you could do scientific research for a living. I’m still delighted that I do this for a living.

  4. Aged 7-ish I drew pictures of me in a white coat in a lab surrounded by the usual mad scientist stuff of retorts and bunsen burners. But I only decided what I wanted to do when I was in the garden aged 18 and looked at some small flies that were sitting on a leaf, and I wondered why they were behaving they way they did. Pretty much the same thing 35 years on, though have now advanced to asking the same question about maggots. Many people think being a scientist is about knowing stuff – I tell my students that knowing stuff is easy. The really interesting thing is finding out new stuff. And it is great fun and an amazing privilege.

  5. When I was very young I wanted to be a Ghostbuster. That dream petered out when I couldn’t find any ghosts and a few years on I set my heart on being a Dentist. I’m now a research Microbiologist at Manchester University. People often pull a face and ask what made me choose that for a living. In truth I have no idea, but often say I was inspired by the film ‘Outbreak’. In truth, it may have had something to do with Egon Spengler.

  6. According to my mother I declared at about 7 I wanted to go to Girton College to read mathematics. This may be apocryphal! I am quite sure I had no idea what scientists did at that age (I wrote a little about this at http://occamstypewriter.org/athenedonald/2011/08/29/behind-the-scenes-at-the-museum/) and anyhow, girls of my generation did not think about careers. At all, until really late i.e. after I’d got my first and second degrees (in physics) I still wasn’t thinking about a career in science. During my PhD I was talking about becoming a tax inspector or hospital administrator. We know that careers’ teachers in schools know little about science on average and so are not well placed to help children to work out what a science career would really mean (and anyhow they are about to disappear in ‘the cuts’). It’s a real problem.

  7. Wanted to be an astronaut as a teenager. Astrophysicist seemed the next nearest thing. 🙂 Also of course as a Brit, there was no option to become an astronaut at the time without becoming an American citizen.

  8. Absolutely! As a 4 year old I remember going around saying I wanted to be a scientist in a white coat. Have always been fascinated by science. I had some excellent science teachers, did my degree in Chemistry, a PhD in structural biology and biophysics and via a few post-docs I now have my own group as a bioinformaticiant.

    Although like Karen, I did have a brief flirtation with wanting to be an astronaut:-)

  9. Despite having two parents who had studied Chemistry at UCL, my desire through my teenage years was to be an artist/writer/musician – anything provided it was suitably Bohemian. Somehow I got cajoled into studying biochemistry at university, which I loathed, and I dropped out just before my final year to pursue a musical career. Although this was going well at the time, I decided to get a day job to help pay the bills – what with the music being evenings and nights. So I went to the only thing I new a bit about, and got a very menial job in a pathology lab making coffee and washing glassware. It was there, during the interludes between coffee breaks, that I began doing a few experiments and for the first time felt the stirrings of an interest in science. The day job then quickly became a PhD in the same lab, someone else was hired to wash the glassware, and my science career was finally taxiing towards the takeoff runway.

  10. I never thought about being a scientist- but looking back I can see I already was one. When I was about 4 I loved thundercats, in particular Snarf. I had a little figure of him that went everywhere with me. I loved him so much I needed to know everything I could about him- including how he was put together. Cue tiny Jamie taking a screwdriver and hammer to his beloved toy. Needless to Snarf never walked again and upset as I may have been I was also well informed over his plastic joints so his death had not been in vain.
    This is the first little ‘experiment’ that I remember but growing up is peppered with them. To this day my mother doesn’t realise that the lamp did not “fall on the bed” but was in fact placed there along with a thermometer to see what temperature could be reached. (thermometer smashed, duvet burnt, lamp still fine)

    Now doing a PhD and continue to explore but now I fill out COSHH forms.
    I didn’t choose science, it chose me.

  11. Not at all – I seemed to do best at English and languages, so I planned to become a journalist. No-one ever mentioned that I was any good at maths and sciences, despite doing just as well in them at GCSE as for arts.

    It was only when I started studying Psychology in 6th form that I realised that I enjoyed science, and that I could *do* science. This has continued to a career involving neuroscience and quantitative genetics.

    My saving grace was being able to study the International Baccalaureate, which made me study science and maths to 18. Had I elected to do A’ Levels, I would have studied purely arts subjects, and I have no idea where I’d be now. I really hope that girls at school now feel that science is a possible qualification/career path for them, but I’m still not convinced.

  12. Definitely – I had a Grow Your Own Mould kit when I was about 5, which you could use to swab areas of your house and see what would grow on an agar plate. Much to the horror of my houseproud mother I think. I also drove my parents round the bend when they used to ask every weekend ‘what do you want to do this weekend?’ and my reply was almost without fail ‘go to the Natural History Museum’. I remember in my interviews for starting secondary school being asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said ‘a forensic scientist or an opera singer’, but I think I secretly wanted to combine both – sing opera by day and fight crime with science at night. Ever the science geek at school, it was obvious that I wanted to study it at uni – ended up specialising in Zoology. Sitting in a lecture on dinosaurs, I had a sudden ‘pinch me – is this real?’ moment – I got to study all those creatures I’d loved going to see at the NHM, as PART OF MY DEGREE! Haven’t ended up a practicing scientist though – there’s too much out there to be learned and be interested in for me to concentrate on researching one area. So instead I thought, why not try and instill the lifelong love of all things science that I’ve had, in other people? I think it’s working so far…

  13. I am loving the stories everyone is sharing here! Thank you so much for sharing.

    Here’s a little of mine…Although I had a passion for science from a young age (which I described in an earlier blog post https://lizziecrouch.wordpress.com/2010/12/12/science-is-beautiful/) I never thought of it as ‘science’ – it was just the natural world around me! Even when I went to school and starting to identify subjects as ‘scientific’ I never considered that it could be part of my job.

    I accidently fell into communicating science when I got a work experience placement at the BBC in 2008. Since then I have worked on various productions, both at the BBC and at independents, as well as completing my MSc in Science Communications. I feel so lucky I discovered that communicating science could be a career!

    p.s. anyone else remember the grow your own crystal tree sets? Oh and the bug boxes which had the magnifying glass at a top?

  14. I’m with Karen. Astronaut, definitely. Apollo dominated my life, like Dave. I even collected Brooke Bond tea cards showing the key players in the NASA program. Apparently Brian Cox did too. (Damn. I bet he got that rare ‘Virgil Grissom’ one too ….) Gavin’s ghostbuster sounds fun, though being as clumsy as I was, I would certainly have crossed the beams.

    Regarding future occupations, I believe there are two kinds of people in life. Those that always knew what they wanted to be, and those who just fell into something. Yep, I’m the latter.

    I became an actor by accident, and other things by haphazard design. I have written scripts, produced drama, formed modest businesses, and sung pop records. But my studies in Science Communication are my favourite, because they spring from a scratched itch, not serendipity. The moth-eaten descendant of a sixties child gazing at tea cards.

  15. I was very interested in natural history and environmental issues as a child, had a hankering for a chemistry set, and went through an astronomy phase as a teenager (though never had a corresponding interest in physics). But it was never an ambition to ‘be a scientist’ – the closest I came was wanting to be a vet, but was put off by watching “Animal Hospital” when I realised I had an aversion to the sight of innards.

    The breakthrough came when an inspiring science teacher at my school recognised my interests and arranged a work experience placement for me at the Natural History Museum. There the penny dropped that I could actually have a career based on that interest! I chose my A levels with that in mind. The same teacher also organised a class trip in conjunction with the drama department to see this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_Experiment_with_an_Air_Pump Some of my classmates thought it was boring but I was gripped. By the time I left the school it was well established that I wanted to be a scientist and was given a further opportunity to get some hands on experience by the deputy head, who happened to be married to a geneticist who let me work shadow him for a week.

    So my transition into wanting to be a scientist was very much aided by teachers who took an interest and gave me access to real life opportunities. As it happened I didn’t go on to become a zoologist, and my career path has taken a couple of twists, but I think those experiences were very important in pointing me in the direction I continue to follow.

  16. I enjoyed science most of all at school and, like Sophie Scott, thought I might be a vet for a while. I went to a comprehensive school where there was little guidance and I went to University (because that’s just what you did if you’d stayed on at school and got good Higher grades (A-levels)) with a vague idea that I might have a job in science at the end… but it really was an abstract notion and I wasn’t really sure how long a degree lasted. I’d never heard of a PhD before and didn’t know what a Masters was.
    I owe a lot to the Scottish Further Education system which has a 4 year degree. This allows a first year to sample subjects accross faculties before ‘settling in’ to your choices – a nice broad base to build knowledge on. I studied biology, music, philosophy, psychology and even did slavonic studies for a term! I knew I was most interested in the brain but thought that meant I was going to be a neuroanatomist until I discovered cognitive neuroscience via psychology. I later went on to apply for a summer research scholarship through the Wellcome Trust and did two months of research at York University in the summer holidays between third and fourth year (second and third year in England). This was absolutely formative…. cemented my decision to pursue a PhD and is basically the reason I’m doing what I do now.

    I think summer vacation scholarships are a BRILLIANT way to ‘try before you buy’ a career in science. I wax lyrical about them, and provide some practical information, on my website here: https://sites.google.com/site/beckyneuro/vacation-scholarships

  17. I wanted to a scientist from as early as I can remember. In fact, my favourite past time as a four year old was mixing my own potions from various bathroom products. Never exploded as hoped though… I was also a complete dinosaur nut at primary school and could wait to be released on a ‘real lab’ to do ‘real science lessons’ when I went to secondary school.

    Chemistry, Biology and Maths A-levels, chemistry undergrad, bit of industrial research, chemistry PhD… then decided that I didn’t want to be in the lab any more. I now work as a civil servant in science policy and public engagement and aside from the occasional pangs don’t regret the move away from the lab. I still consider myself as a non-practicing scientist (or at least culturally a scientist) but it hasn’t panned out like I imagined. My five year old self certainly did not dream of being a civil servant…

  18. When I was little I wanted to be Alan Grant from Jurassic Park, and then when I finally came to terms with the extinction of the dinosaurs I wanted to be David Attenborough. Now I’m training to be an evolutionary biologist and I hope to emulate them both as much as I can.

    It was never really explicitly about being a scientist, but figuring out how animals worked just seemed like a really cool job.

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