Why scientific researchers are really just artists

Science and art seem so divided until we really take a look at what the subjects are made for: creation.  Creation of a new vaccine, creation of a new painting–either way, both make something new.  Really, scientists are just artists who use the laws of nature as the canvas.  I’ve heard a lot of scientists say that they aren’t good at art.  But, really, when you’re a professional researcher at a university, you and the artist in the next building over are using the same techniques to make a living.  Here’re some of the reasons why scientific researchers are actually naturalistic artists:

  • Be unique and focus on something

From my observations, researchers really benefit from having research that stands out in some way.  This summer, I worked in a lab that specialized in the biomedical applications of a special type of foam.  That was what was something special about their lab: they were finding out all these new things about this one material, and they focused on it.  Artists do the same thing; whether it’s landscape photography or cartoon drawings of Bichons, finding your place in the community you work in is a big part of both fields.

  • Expanding on something no one else has done before

Originality.  Researchers need it to publish papers, and artists need it to publish pieces.  If what you have is something somebody’s already seen, it isn’t of too much value.  Think of it like this: people are usually most excited to see a movie they haven’t seen it yet.  It’s harder to get you someone to the movies again if they already know how the story goes (I mean, unless it was a really good story).

  • Extensive training

Both artists and scientists spend insane amounts of time perfecting their crafts.  For a writer, it might be perfecting the prose.  For a scientist, it might be a PhD.  No expert in either field just picked up the subject overnight.  Chances are, they’ve been working on it for at least half of a decade.

  • Niche value

Honestly, is strange as this is, even if you’re the best at what you do, not everyone will see how much your work contributes to the world.  For instance, take Shakespeare: the master of the complex, highly open-ended plot and poetic, rhythmic prose.  He’s arguably one of the best writers ever (besides Michael Crichton, of course), but only a handful of people really appreciate his work.  My point is this: both researchers and artists have a specific audience that their work targets.  Astrobiological researchers are probably looking to publish in a field that’ll really listen to what they’re saying.  Similarly, not everyone liked the Twilight books.  In both fields, you have to find someone who actually wants to pay attention to what you’re doing.



What does it actually mean to “be yourself”?

It’s advice we’ve all gotten since around the time that we started getting made fun of for being ourselves.

It seems that most people go through those awkward, couple of years where they don’t know who they are, or they’re afraid that people won’t like who they are, or even they thought they knew who they were, but it turns out they kind of missed the mark on that one.

Then we grow up, and we get tired of pretending to be this person that everyone thinks we are; we just want to tell jokes we’re actually thinking, wear clothes we actually want to wear, and forget what anyone else has to say about it.

And some people do that.  And some people don’t know how.

We’re told to “be ourselves,” but that term is so vague.  They’re two words that have plagued identity-seekers since the beginning of human identity itself.  Here’s what it actually means to “be yourself”:

You have your own set of morals.  You’ve thought about how you want to live, and what values are most important to you.  You strictly stick to these, or you give the rules more flexibility: it’s all up to you.  This is your personal code of ethics, and I think that this is something that takes the longest time to develop out of all of the components of self-identity; I think it’s because knowing how you want to live and what you stand for comes with wisdom, and wisdom, in my opinion, comes with age.  It takes time to gather enough experience so that you realize what you support and don’t support.

Your lifestyle is your own.  Your way of handing problems, how you dress, and even your fitness routine is all part of how you run your life.  Figuring out what works for you and tailoring it towards what you want to achieve is part of being true to yourself.

Your dreams and your aspirations.  This is the first thing that came to mind, because I have a lot of goals I plan on making realities before I’m out of the game.  To be true to yourself, I think that you need to have your own set of things you want to accomplish: not something your parents told you you should want or something you read in a magazine.  When you’re working towards something you actually want, you’re making yourself genuinely happy.  THAT’S something you’re doing for you, even if it ends up benefitting other people.

You let yourself change.  This might be the most counterintuitive component of being yourself, but hear me out.  We’re told be love ourselves for who we are, and I think that’s totally valid.  Granted, people grow and change; you probably won’t be the same person you were 5 years ago.  Sometimes, being yourself means being the many people you become throughout your lifetime;  you’re still you, but you’re a different version–a smarter, wiser, and more compassionate you as you age.  Welcome any personal growth that comes your way.  Almost always, it’ll make you nothing but better.

Know what you’re good at, and know what you’re no-so-good at.  I’ll let you in on a secret: I’m pretty lousy at distance running.  I ran in high school, but I never felt like it was something I truly excelled at.  Going back, do I regret being on the track team?  No way.

Figuring out what you’re good at is an experimental process.

It’s kind of like fumbling around for your phone at 2 in the morning: you have this general idea of what you’re doing, but, sometimes, when it’s dark, you end up picking up the calculator on your desk instead.

My point is that you don’t know what you’re working with until you pick it up and try it out (like trying to tweet with a TI 83).  It takes a little while before you know exactly what you’re doing; but until you figure it out, keep on fumbling, my friend.  Just don’t stub your toe on the side of your desk.



The real reason college will make you successful

You spent 4 years, 130-or-so credits, and about 6 boxes of tissues per finals week for your degree.  You took a slew of classes to become specialized in a topic you think you can make a living on.  But, even if you forgot a lot of what you learned in college, just having been really affords you something you’ve probably never thought about before.  Sometimes, it isn’t the degree that’ll make you a millionaire.

In my opinion, you don’t go to college to learn a skill–that’s something you can get from the internet, a how-to book, or a local trade school.  What college really does is teach you how to think.  It teaches you discipline, time management, and how to learn.

Think about it: you’re a cute, little freshman in college.  You have your first exam, and you only study the night before for it.  You fail.

By your junior year, you’re smarter about studying.  You know you need at least, say, 2 hours per day for at least a week in advance to prepare.  That’s not something your classes alone taught you–I mean, sure, they’re harder than high school, so maybe they made you realize it, but what you’ve done from freshman to junior year is discipline yourself.  You know how much time it’ll take you to remember the stuff you’ll be tested on, and you’re spacing it out well enough so you can give each section proper care.  That’s an experience thing–it isn’t something you can just learn from a book.  In many cases, I think the most important part about college is failing: realizing what doesn’t work, so you can figure out what does work.  The experience of failing, say, your freshman Calc test is really important to your development, because you’re going to want to prevent that in the future.  Otherwise, you might be in a little warmer of water than what’s comfortable.

Speaking of which, while you’re learning how much time it’ll take you to learn the material for your class, you’re going to learn which style you learn best from.  I’ll give you an example: in my freshman Microeconomics class, I sat in a lecture hall twice a week with about 700 other people.  I sat in the very front row, took notes, and tried to be as engaged as possible, but I didn’t do nearly as well as I did in a 15 person Electricity + Magnetism class I took the same year.  In my opinion, the physics was more conceptually challenging; it wasn’t that Kirschhoff’s Law just clicked upon walking in the room.  My point is that I learn best when I have a teacher right there, and if needed, the teacher has the time to explain a problem to me in three different ways (whether they get irritated with said request usually varies).

Knowing what your learning style is is something you fortify when you’re in college, because you have to figure out the quickest and most effective way to master a concept (even if that quickest way is spending hours in office hours).  If you didn’t have those time constraints, you wouldn’t be forcing that self-development and realization; see what I mean?

Overall, if you remember most of what you took in freshman Gen Chem 1, I salute you!  But, if it has escaped you, don’t worry; because of the skills you’ve built by being in college, you can relearn it, no problem.



The do’s and don’ts of reinventing yourself

Maybe it’s because it’s the start of the new year.  Maybe it was a break up.  Maybe you’re just ready to try something different.  Whatever the reason, you want to become a better version of yourself: the stronger, or the more stylish, or the small talk savvy, superhero version of yourself.

I’ve reinvented myself a few times in the past 5 years; I’ve experimented lightly with different looks and styles to see which felt most natural or confidence boosting.  Here is some advice about purposely changing yourself that I’ve picked up along the way:

1) Do listen to the people around you

It seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it?  I mean, why do you care about what anyone else thinks of what you’re going to change about yourself?

Before you go crazy with all the self-renovations, try talking it out with a confidant first. Sometimes, we don’t realize that other things are motivating our desire to change.  For example, getting a tattoo that says “screw my ex” might not be a choice that comes from a place of self-betterment.  Don’t think of it like “getting permission” from the person; think of it more as making sure that it doesn’t sound like you just want to retaliate. Remember people, the goal is to make yourself better.  Stick with me, here.

2) Don’t be too impulsive

Sure, everyone loves spontineity, but you just want to make sure it’s ultimately helping you out.  Abruptly starting a coke habit might not be the type of change you benefit from.  Hyperboles aside, sometimes some decisions feel better in the moment than later on.

Basically, put a little bit of thought into the changes you want to make to yourself before you actually go for it.  It could save you a trip to your local rehab clinic.

3) Do make sure you’re changing for yourself

I feel like I read this advice everywhere–maybe that’s because it’s a pretty universal tip. And, take it from me, it’s actually really hard to follow.  I won’t deny that I care about what other people think.  I’m not something who doesn’t listen to what they’re saying.

It’s one thing to listen to what others are saying, and it’s another thing to change things about yourself because they want you to.  Change only if and because you want to.  If you change all these things you actually liked about yourself, the reinvention didn’t do you much good, did it?

4) Don’t discount the little changes

Any change you make to yourself that’ll help you improve yourself is progress–don’t negate that progress, no matter how seemingly minimal!

You eat spinach now.  You started Portuguese on Duolingo.  You’re going to kickboxing classes on Thursdays.  These are all things that are helping you long-term, and you should be proud of yourself!  Don’t get stuck in the loop that you have to look almost unrecognizable after your reinvention for it to be a success.  Remember your ultimate goal, and stick with that–sometimes, a change in your physical appearance isn’t necessary for said goal.  For example, finishing your degree doesn’t usually require liposuction.



Why forgiving is good for you

Sometimes, it feels like it’s easier to stay mad.

They said something to you, or they treated you poorly.  It was wrong, and you’re upset.  You don’t think you can ever mitigate the anger, and it feels like they don’t deserve it.  But that’s not the right way to go about moving on.

It’s really hard to forgive someone, especially someone we care about.  And that’s really counterintuitive, because you think it’d be easy.  You’d think that the people we love the most would have this free pass to forgiveness because they’re close to us.

But it isn’t that way.  It’s different because the people who care about us the most shouldn’t be the ones who hurt you; we put this enormous trust in them that they’ll keep us safe, and they’ll treat us how we should be treated.  I mean, we all need people who are on our side.

But, what happens when that trust is damaged?  What happens when someone injures our feelings towards them?

You forgive, and you move on.

If you can move on together from it, then do so, and keep this incident as a lesson. But, if the relationship is damaged beyond repair, it’s something that you just accept. Some relationships are meant to last forever, and others aren’t.  And, sometimes, it isn’t even anyone’s fault that doesn’t work out.  You’re just different.  And that’s okay, because both people deserve to be happy.  Both people deserve fulfillment, and both deserve to find people who are dying to meet them.

Forgiveness isn’t the same as forgetting.  I think the two often get confused.  Forgiving implies that you acknowledge the problem, but you’re willing to move past it.  Forgetting means the problem never happened.

When you forgive, you grow and learn about yourself.  You challenge yourself by accepting that something happened, but you don’t want to dwell on it.  But, when you just forget, there’s no growth that takes place–it doesn’t get anyone anywhere, because it’s just burying the problem in a mound of ignorance.  And it isn’t exactly the blissful kind.

Forgiving is good for you.  It takes all of those hurt feelings and stress, and it frees them. When you forgive, you give yourself permission to heal.  I’ve known people who never forgive, and they’re stuck in this emotional rut, still angry at people who damaged them years ago.  That’s no way to move forward; you’re not becoming any better of a person from it, and you have this beautiful opportunity to!

You don’t have to wish the person ill if the relationship is beyond repair.  If you had a close relationship with someone, you want them to be happy, because there’s always a part of you who’ll remember how joyful their smile made you.

Sometimes, the best thing for you is to move on and wish them all of the happiness in the world.  And that’s really hard to do, but it’s so good for you.



Why the most successful people of the future will be part engineer, part artist

As an engineering student, I’ve noticed the stigma against artists–“it’s not as hard,” “numbers are actually useful,” and “feelings aren’t going to cure cancer.”  This needs to stop, because we need both the right and left brain for technological advancement.

Engineering is important, sure.  The ability to use math and science to physically or virtually create something is what will generate progress in mechanical terms.  We’ll have new and improved inventions.

But as a chemical engineering major at Penn State, I know what a well-funded program stresses and overlooks.  We focus on hard data: equations, tables, dimensionless numbers…that’s all mandatory.  What isn’t mandatory is concept invention–that pure imagination that generates ideas from nothing.  We know how to make something, but we don’t know how to imagine it.  I’d argue that, at least at the undergrad level, engineering students aren’t trained to be creative;  we’re trained to be analytical, methodical, and efficient–to quickly get the right answer.  That’s not enough to solve today’s problems.

Artists are masters of imagination; I only have some experience with it from a liberal arts minor’s perspective, but from what I’ve observed, much of an artist’s degree program is based on “original quality”–not just creating something, but creating something that’s actually good.  It’s an artist’s specialty to test the limits of reality, and when you combine with the skills to act on that imagination, you’re unstoppable.

If we can foster potential that excels in both the arts and sciences, we’d have a generation of people who can not only think of an original idea, but also automously implement it using their analytical skills.

The rocket was invented by Robert H. Goddard, an engineer who was inspired by World of the Wars, by H.G. Wells: a sci fi novel depicting space travel.  Leo Szilard, a physicist, refined atomic power only after reading The World Set Free, by H.G. Wells: another sci fi novel that described atomic power for peaceful society.  Even the cellphone was initially imagined in Star Trek–that’s who Motorola credits for the idea.

Nuclear, aerospace, electrical and computer.  That’s just four engineering specialities that advanced because of the arts.

We nurture this mirage that science and the arts are separate–that you can advance one without the other…that they aren’t intertwined.  The two programs focus on fortifying different skills.  We need to stop thinking that we can just forget the arts and focus on the STEM in order to technologically improve; we need to stop thinking that artists are inferior because their assignments aren’t attached to an equation.  An artist’s program specializes in what the engineer’s program lacks in: pure creativity and original ideas.



When you’re getting discouraged because you haven’t reached your goals

It’s Friday night, and you’re studying.  You’ve been staring at the textbook for hours, but it’s still not making sense.  The feeling is frustrating, but not foreign.  This is how every Friday night goes.

Or maybe you’re working as a waitress.  You’re paying your way through school, and you make just enough to cover your tuition, but not enough so that you could afford to take a weekend off to catch up on your studies.

An eternal loop of “I need this to do that, but I don’t have time for that because of this.”

It’s really difficult to “carry on” when you’re not seeing results.  It’s like you have to rely on everyone who tells you that it’ll all be worth it.  And that gets kind of unnerving, because it’s as if you can’t trust your judgement anymore of whether you’ll like the outcome.

But here’s the thing: you’re going to love the outcome.

When you’re getting discouraged, all you need is a break… not to quit.  If you want your efforts to amount to something, quitting will ruin that.  Your goal is to give yourself as best of an environment as possible, but if you stop now, all of that struggling would have been for nothing.

You know what you want, and you’re doing your best to get that.  Or maybe you have no idea what you want, but you’re figuring it out while you do something that’ll keep yourself afloat.  Both are great, because both show that you’re on your way–that it’s only a matter of time until you get what you’re after.

When you’re getting discouraged, find something to keep you sane.  Paint.  Write.  Play the guitar.  Run.  Dance.  Sing.  Talk.  Think.  But the law of averages, something has to help with your morale.  You just have to find it and recognize when you need it.  You can’t work all the time–you’re not a machine.  Recognize when you need a break, and foster your hobby’s potential in that time.

You’re going to reach your goals.  Sometimes, it might take you a little longer than you want, but you’ll still reach it just the same.  Just keep trying.



What you can learn about social comparison from horse racing

Let me be totally up front with you: the most important point of this thought is that comparison hurts individuality.  It can damage your confidence in your unique strengths, just because they don’t match up with someone else’s.  It can send you on this head-trip that you’ve somehow fallen behind on your goals–you’re not on par with your peers, your competitors.

I get it.  I compare myself to people all the time.  Because, if I’m being totally honest, it’s really difficult not to.  When you’re young, you’re trying so intensely to have things work for you and make this glistening future for yourself. You’re looking to your peers for examples of success.  A perfect test score.  A record-breaking 100m backstroke time.  A publication in a magazine.  Success is inspirational, and it’s exciting to feel proud of someone for accomplishing what they’ve worked for.

But when you start weighing their achievements to your’s, we get this soup of rancid emotions.  It’s almost like carbon monoxide to your thoughts; you don’t realize it’s harmful until it has already poisoned you.

Have you ever watched a horse race, paying very close attention to the horses?  They’re wearing blinders on their eyes, and it prevents them from seeing their competition when they race.  It keeps them focused on their own race and what’s in front of them.  It keeps them from getting distracted by their surroundings.

Now, let’s use this equine example as a metaphor for a second.

Suppose the competition and the comparisons are getting to you.  You’re getting distracted by what everyone else is doing, and you’re starting to doubt your own choices. Use the Kentucky Derby as your inspiration to block it out–now, what used to be competition is just background noise, and you’re focusing on moving yourself forward and finishing the race.

But, this takes practice.  I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why it takes such a long time for people who are addicted to social comparison to knock it off, and I’ve come up with 3 reasons: competition is addicting, especially when you have potential, society is virtually build on ranks and comparisons, so it’s hard to shake the idea when it’s practically engrained into your psyche, and finally, it takes a while to become so comfortable with your own goals and objectives that you can look at someone else’s and think “well, that’s great for them! But, it’s not something I’d want… what I’m doing is the best possible option for me right now.”  I think the need to compare has a negative correlation with self-esteem and maturity.

Don’t get me wrong: I think social comparison is what keeps competition alive.  Look at the Olympics: that’s 16 days of competition between the most hardworking athletes in the world.  But, when it gets to where you’re spending time you could be using to accomplish your own goals on worrying about how whoever else is doing, that’s a form of comparison that’s lost it’s productive value.

What do you think?  Is social comparison necessary, or could we do without it? Leave a comment below!




Why students without 4.0s make the best researchers

I’m a strong proponent of research because it applies what we know to what we don’t.  I think it drives scientific advancement, and if we’re to compete with the rest of the world, pouring funds into research–medicine, technology, space–is the way to go.

I think research sometimes gets this intimating connotation, because it’s discovering something no one else has before… there has to be a certain intellectual capacity that goes along with that, right?

Of course.

But, I think a student’s capabilities for contribution often relies solely on grades and test scores, and I think this is the wrong approach.  Students who can academically succeed with minimal effort show impressive mental capacities.  However, I think that the student who must work harder to understand develops skills that the effortless straight A student might never exercise.

At some point, we’ll all come across a concept that doesn’t immediately click.  This is the moment where pure intelligence and perseverance diverge.  A student who must turn to his/her resources, like textbooks, notes or office hours might know how to solve the predicament more effectively than one whose never had to use them before.

Additionally , if a student spent all 4 years at the library reading textbooks and in office hours going over missed exam problems, you know they’re disciplined, determined, and hard working.  I won’t pretend I’m an expert at research, but from what I’ve observed, the ability to use your resources and seek out experts who can answer your questions is almost more valuable than natural intellect.

But, most importantly, I think that students who must work harder make the best researchers because they’re familiar with failure.  They aren’t afraid to fail, because they’ve learned to persist through the confusion, less than par grades, and opinions of others.  And you’re going to fail during research projects–experiments won’t go as planned, data might seem like pure anomalies, and it’ll seem tumultuous.  However, it’s the tenacity of the ones who’ve strove and struggled with success who won’t be stared off by a couple misunderstandings.  If research is trial and error–adjusting until you find the right solution, wouldn’t you want a student whose done the same?



Why open coursework will change the world

In my opinion, education is the single most important method we can use to change the world.  The desire to learn and grow is what will drive our society forward–in the arts, in the sciences, in society.

I think knowledge is so important to the advancement of our society.  I believe that everyone has the potential to become an expert in a subject; once you figure out what that subject is, you have the power to learn as much as you can–to become the specialist of that area and revolutionize the field.

Given this, education also works as a business.  College is expensive, and sometimes, finances prohibit a student’s acquisition of knowledge.  I know I’m taking the typical college student approach, but I don’t think that money should ever prevent a student from learning–I think that interest should drive education.

So this is where open coursework comes into play.

I discovered the concept while I was interning.  I think I found my first class on iTunesU, and I finished it, How to Think Like a Psychologist, within 3 days.  Soon, I discovered MITOpenCourseWare, and I took pharmacology classes when I came home from work.  I think this is a revolutionary educational concept because all of the necessary materials are so easy to access!  All you need is a computer, wifi, and a yearn for knowledge.

Sure, completing an open course isn’t ultimately contributing to a degree.  However, if you find that you don’t understand a concept as well as you should for your job, or you’re struggling in a class, this method can heartily supplement the confused crevices of your brain.

Ultimately, this is one of the coolest educational innovations I’ve seen in a while.  From my research, you can find a course online on nearly any subject from about 1.2 billion universities.  If you’re interested, the next step is figuring out what you want to learn about.