Monday, November 12, 2012

Four reasons to pursue science

I delivered the following lecture on Saturday, Nov. 10 to competitors at the Siemens science, math, and technology regional competition at the University of Notre Dame. Siemens competitors at high school students but my main points--that love of nature, sense of adventure, a desire to help people, and a n obligation to address grand challenges--apply equally well to undergraduates and young grad students. It's good from time to time to remember why you do what you do...

"You have had a long and exciting day today and a strenuous journey to reach this event. Congratulations to you for your achievements and for all of the accomplishments ahead of you. You truly are among the best minds we have in this country. And you occupy a privileged position, one with great opportunity and responsibility.

I want to close today with a big-picture question, a really big-picture question: WHY? I want to invite you to think about why you are here and how you are going to take your scientific aptitude and experiences and—as football fans say here at Notre Dame—move them down the field. Each of you has pursued extraordinary work, and you will do more excellent work in the future. But I’d like to invite you to think about why the science that you do is important and what motivates you to do it. To be a great scientist, you need brains and creativity, but you also need persistence, drive, and motivation. I’d like to talk about finding these motivating intangibles—pulling them out and giving them a good hard look.

So, my question for you: “WHY?” What is it all for? Why have you worked so hard at school, in the projects that have gotten you here today? I hope that the research that you have pursued was rewarding; I’m sure that it was. But I also know some of the other reasons that students give for studying science, math, and engineering, things like: to gain admission into one of the world’s best universities (like the one that you have visited here today), to get the highest grades in the class, to make your family and friends proud, or just because you’re good at it. Or maybe it’s to get a good job, earn a high salary, or launch some tremendously successful and lucrative company. Or perhaps the reason is the stuff we hear from politicians—that developing science and math leaders will rescue our economy and keep us from slipping in the great international competition of science and math test scores.

Well, I’m here to tell you, as someone who has dedicated her life to the pursuit of science that it’s not about any of those things, or at least it shouldn’t be. All of those things: college admission, pride, financial success, miraculous inventions that save our economy—they are all secondary. They might come to you, but if they do, they come only if you obey some deeper principles, if you pursue science for loftier, more personal and social reasons.

It is a deep and meaningful purpose that gets a scientist like me out of bed day after day after day, over the duration of an entire career. It’s hard for money alone to do that, and after you’ve graduated from college that getting-into-college bit wouldn’t be a good reason any more, and even being the super hero that saves the US economy isn’t enough stir the imagination for a lifetime of scientific work.

So what does? I’m going to describe four deeper reasons that speak to me—maybe some of them speak to you too. Let’s reflect on these for a few moments before we leave here today, before all of you head off to your next big accomplishment.

1) The #1 reason that I am a scientist is a fascination with nature, a fundamental desire in my soul to understand how nature works, so that I can appreciate its beauty, creativity, and value. I am inspired to find ways to foster nature, mimic nature, and protect nature. I fundamentally believe—and know as a scientist—that all human endeavors take place in and depend upon nature, so I want to use it wisely and protect it for the benefit of humanity. There is nature in molecules—in this is hemoglobin, for example. And there is nature in people living real lives outside of the laboratory. The earth, the universe, and all of the things that humans do in that universe are part of nature. Science is the study of nature, of our very being, and the stardust that we are made of. I find this fascination with nature to be a profound notion, one worth getting excited about each morning.

2) Another reason I love being a scientist is for adventure. When I was young, I followed the career of the first woman astronaut, Sally Ride, very closely. Sally was a physics major at Stanford and flew in the space shuttle as a mission specialist in 1983 and 1984, right around the time that I was getting interested in science. I found her efforts to break physical and social barriers and her eagerness to visit the frontier of space highly inspirational. Because of Sally Ride, I flirted for more than a decade with a career in astrophysics, at least until I discovered ecology as a sophomore in college.

In my career now, adventure comes in the form of field research and an opportunity to study beautiful places and creatures. For example, my work takes me to the west coast of North America, to the shores of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and to the beautiful oak savanna and dune ecosystems close to home here in the Midwest. Other ecologists study coral reefs, tropical forests, or the frozen tundra. What amazing places to get to spend time! For others, adventure might come at the bench of a genome sequencer or a nuclear magnetic resonance machine, but a sense of exploration is there regardless. In my opinion, scientists should strive to learn or experience something new every day, harnessing that youthful sense of adventure.

3) A third reason why many scientists, myself included, perform research is to help people. Science is the ultimate humanist endeavor because there are few issues that confront on our modern society that do not have a scientific issue, question, or dilemma at their core. Humans struggle to overcome poverty, disease, and injustice around the world, and science has tremendous potential to alleviate this suffering. For example, colleagues of mine at Notre Dame are studying the evolution of malaria that is resistant to cloroquine, a once-effective treatment for malaria worldwide, in an attempt to increase survival rates in drug resistant areas.

4) But the fourth—and most important motivator for me personally—is participating in a grand challenge, an issue of profound importance to many people and places—something that does not have an easy answer and requires the best and brightest minds to solve.

The grand challenge that occupies my time and attention is global climate change. This same grand challenge occupies thousands of scientists around the world and together—from our diverse perspectives and different disciplines—we are piecing together the implications of climate change and what we might do about it. I take great pride in the privilege to participate in solving one of the largest and most vexing issues facing humanity.

Lest politicians tell you otherwise, the consequences of climate change are all around us, and they are profound. Thanks to steadily increasing emissions of greenhouse gases from human activity and lack of progress to combat those emissions, we now expect warming of 7-11 degrees Fahrenheit, on average, around the globe by the end of this century, with some places experiencing warming upwards of 13 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a world that within 100 years will be as different from today as today is different than the last ice age. A big deal; a big challenge.

Let’s just take two recent examples from close to home:
We know that climate change will influence the severity of storms, and sea level rise will increase the damage caused by storm surge, much like we saw less than two weeks ago with Superstorm Sandy. Droughts in the south and southwest US, predicted by global climate models, also set the state of Texas ablaze in 2011, across the entire state from east to west.

My own research explores how climate change affects our ability to use and conserve biological resources, from endangered species—like this Karner blue butterfly—to pollinators—like bees and wasps—to pests of trees and crops. I do this work because it stimulates my personal desire and professional obligation to make the world a better place by studying and revealing a grand challenge. My students and I have discovered, for example, reasons why species may not be able to track changing climate by moving closer to the poles; we have revealed strategies for ecosystem management that might reduce the vulnerability of some species to climate change; and we have shown where to expect non-linearities and surprises in species’ response to climate warming. These results will help us live better in the world and preserve it for the future. They also send warning signals that climate change must be confronted before it reaches disaster proportions, proportions so large that we cannot adjust to them or keep them from progressing and accelerating.

So, I invite you to consider the reasons why you are here today, why you have made it so far in a prestigious science competition, and the reasons why doing science will propel your forward. I urge you to think about where your personal fulfillment comes from and how to incorporate that in your studies and career.

I have given you four reasons that I have for being a scientist: a love of nature, a sense of adventure, a desire to help people, and the responsibility to address grand challenges. I feel the last of these is critically important, and I urge to spend your time and efforts on scientific issues of social significance. Fortunately, there’s significance in nearly every facet of scientific research, some value or benefit to society. The race to find the Higgs Boson is a grand challenge; reconstructing the structure and function of past life is a grand challenge; global climate change is a grand challenge. Figure out what grand challenge compels you; be able to explain to other people; and focus on that value to drive you forward.

When we all get out of the bed in the morning inspired to do great things, all of the other rewards will simply follow as a consequence. Best wishes to you in your future adventures. Be thankful for the good fortune and great promise that you all embody."


  1. Great speech Jessica! We don't talk about our underlying motivations often enough in science.

  2. in general what does pursue mean in science?

  3. in general what does pursue mean in science?