Science is a Work of Love

Ann Arbor March for Science, April 22, 2017

Science is a Work of Love

Monica Dus, PhD

Hi everyone! Let’s imagine a scientist. What do you see? Do you see someone wearing a lab coat with glasses? Sitting at a fancy microscope? What about their personality? You might imagine this scientist is logical, maybe even a little bit callous, and not very funny.

Now, look around you. Who here is a scientist… raise your hands.Ok, What do you see? I see a lot of people who are not like that. It’s true, I can’t read their minds, so I can’t promise you that they aren’t working on some crazy doomsday zombie virus, but hey, if that were the case they would probably be hiding in a secret lab somewhere. Instead, our labs are right here, mine is actually right there, and you can read about our research and who pays for it online. This is not a secret.

What is secret are the lives of scientist and the process of science. So let me tell you that secret, and that secret is that scientists are human and that science is a work of love. 

Why is this a secret? Well mostly it’s because we don’t get to talk to you much and, yes, some of that is because we spend many hours in the lab doing experiments and analyzing data, but mostly, mostly, there aren’t many opportunities, like this, today, for us to talk to you. We love to talk to people! – have you ever struck up a conversation with a scientist at the grocery store, bar or bus, and asked about their work? I few years ago on the N train in NYC a girl told me she liked my purse. Next thing you know, we’re talking about how fruit flies fight each other in Chuck Norris style and how this helps understand the genetics of aggression. So yeah, we love talking about science to anyone, it’s just we don’t have many opportunities to do that. Because of that you don’t get to know us personally. Instead, you get to know scientists from movies and TV shows, which portray them as Tony Stark, Sheldon Coopers, and Dr. Frankenstein. This is not who we are. This is not who we are.

 So, let me tell you about scientists.

Scientists are above all, curious. What do I mean? You know when you are online and maybe you are on facebook and you see the headline: “Scientists have discovered that…” eating chocolate increases memory,… you can’t help but click on it to learn more about it? Maybe its because it’s about your health, maybe you’ve always wondered about that, or maybe you just want an excuse to eat more chocolate. Well the urge to click that link, that feeling of wanting to know more, is how we feel 24-7. Being a scientist is a full immersion, a deep dive into curiosity all the time.

 You think of a problem, of a question, and ask, how I am going to answer it? The answer, of course, is hidden and complicated, so you design experiments that little by little chip away at the mystery, and one day, you say “Ah-ah, this is the hint I am going in the right direction” or “Oh man, my hypothesis was wrong, I got to rethink this.”

This process is long and demanding. You have to really care about that question, you have to really believe it will make a difference for people, and you have to be very determined to overcome the obstacles between you and the answer.

Throughout this process what keeps you going is curiosity.

This drive is not a wish to be wealthy, or to be powerful or to gain authority. Instead, this drive comes from passion and it comes from love. Like the way nurses and doctors spend long hours in the hospital caring for patients, like soldiers fight to protect our freedom, like farmers work dawn to dusk to care for their crops so that we have food to eat.

These jobs are all about passion. They are all about love.

Science, too, is a work of love.

What do I mean by this?

Love is hard to define, but we all know what it is like to love. The tumult and torment of emotion, the joy that makes your eyes tear and your heart beat fast, the sacrifices and the sorrows.

Well, all of this is true for scientists too. We love our questions, we labor through the scientific process, we cry and we laugh and we scream eureka [or oh crap!]. Our hearts are heavy with the weight of failures and rejections and with sacrifices and with longing.

For me this sacrifice was leaving my country and my family- my little 6 year old brothers whom I love more than anything in this world- to cross a vast ocean to pursue my childhood dream of becoming a scientist, to pursue a question that took me 15 years of training to even begin to ask today. It took many laughs and tears, many long phone calls overseas at weird hours – ask my mom and dad about that!- many sleepless nights purifying proteins as I questioned if this was the right career for me, many long days where my lab mates pined because things were hard and uncertain.

But like with everything you love, even when things get hard, you stick with it, you fight through the hardships, because it’s worth it.

The question you are pursuing is worth it. it is important. It matters.

And so the final point is, why do these questions matter?

Why does science matter?

What is the value of science?

 Well, a lot of it is obvious, right? Each answer to a scientific question is a step closer to improving the world.

Science helps us build amazing things, explore the universe, and defy disease.

 But there are other reasons why science matters.

Science gives us permission to question and doubt, to move closer to understanding the world and ourselves. Science gives us the tools to think creatively and without restrictions, about who we are, to ponder who we want to be, to wonder about how things may be in the future. This is why science matters. It’s not just the technologies or the medicines. Science allows us to think with hope about a future we can conquer.

But science, science doesn’t exist in isolation. Science exists in society and for society. And a society that chooses to support science, is a society that values dedication, freedom and independence. And this is why we are here today. We are here to honor the values of this society, our society, and its investment in science. Really, we are here today to celebrate you. So thank you!