Mad Scientist cake, by donbuciak on Flickr
When I was very little, I wanted to be a nurse – for about as long as the costume fit, which wasn’t very long at all. I wasn’t allowed to wear it when it was cold, anyway. A more year-round pursuit emerged next, when I discovered how many books there were in the world and decided to become a librarian. I am not quite sure why, but that evolved into my final career choice – Mad Scientist. You know, with the genius hair, lab coat and test tubes.
I went to a girls-only grammar school. For those of you who live outside the UK, that’s a secondary school with a selection process that picks the brightest pupils; there aren’t many left now (in fact, there weren’t very many left then). Even so, my career goals took a bit of a knock when I had to make my first set of subject choices – I was not allowed to take physics, chemistry and domestic science (cooking and sewing, essentially) as that would have been too many sciences. Domestic science was out, to be replaced with history.
School chemistry lessons were pretty dull, so when I made my A-level choices they were maths, physics and Spanish. By this time I already knew that I wanted to study physics at university, but in the three years it took me to complete my degree I fell out of love with the idea of being a Mad Scientist. Academia is full (certainly in physics) of men with bad dress sense and a tremendous amount of politics and fighting for grant money. When people think of scientists these days I suspect what comes to mind are the ones that went into industry, where people are probably better dressed but there’s tremendous pressure to produce and publish results. Increasingly the two areas are converging, with universities becoming more interested in developing their findings into commercial products.
Science has become a very divided and focused discipline. People have years of training in their specialist field. But back when science was a new idea, it was very much the province of the ‘amateur’ expert. People who had no formal training (there wasn’t any!) made important leaps because they worked hard, took copious notes and were (although the label wasn’t applied) very geeky. Many were self-funded.
I am not a trained botanist or horticulturalist, but yesterday I spent my morning with my nose deep in the murky corners of the interweb, researching an exciting new project. I’m not sharing, because it’s so exciting that it is Top Secret. Information is being handed out on a need-to-know basis for now. There will be new plant experiments in the garden next year. Last week I had my nose in books; I also regularly collaborate with people (mostly online) and have field trips into gardens elsewhere.
It occurred to me this morning that I have ended up exactly where I would have wanted to be. There aren’t many test tubes; I don’t have a lab coat. And I leave the genius hair to people who are better at it 🙂