No, I’d rather not be a physicist

9 07 2007

David Ng has put up a new post on the recent topic of biologists secretly wanting to be physicists or some other kind of scientist, only they never pursued physics because they were not particularly skilled at math. While I certainly don’t have physics envy (it’s more of a physics avoidance type of behavior), I do think those in certain fields of biology have more fun than chemists, physicists, microbiologists, etc. Of course I have a pretty big bias in this area, but I would much rather travel the world dressed up as a moose and study predator avoidance behavior, work on fossil sites, etc. than spend most of my time in a genetics/physics/chemistry lab. Perhaps if I was more adept at math I would have done better in the elementary physics and chemistry classes and I would have received more encouragement, but I certainly have no regrets about my current scientific interests.

While I wouldn’t count myself as a real scientist yet, I thought I would answer the little 3 question meme David put up anyhow, and you can check out PZ’s response as well.

1. What’s your current scientific specialty?

That’s probably the most difficult question out of the three; I don’t suppose I actually have one. While my major is Ecology & Evolution (and I’m minoring in Geology), what I enjoy learning about primarily falls under the general term of “Zoology.” Behavior, evolutionary history, ecology, physiology, anatomy, and paleontology all fascinate me, and I don’t think I’m particularly skilled in any one area enough to say it’s my “specialty.” If I really had to pick, I suppose I’m more interested in ecological evolution (especially extinctions), but that doesn’t seem to be easily distinguishable from what I just mentioned. I’ve been told over and over again by professors that I’m going to have to specialize if I want to have any sort of career in science, but regardless of what I may have to decide professionally what I love studying can best be embraced as Zoology.

2. Were you originally pursuing a different academic course? If so, what was it?

I’ve changed majors a few times, for varying reasons and with varying success. I initially entered Rutgers Cook College as a marine science major, but my math skills were nonexistent and I got placed into “Elementary Algebra.” This meant I had to wait a year to take Biology 101 and even longer before Physics and Chemistry (which were required for most of the marine science courses I had to take), and after I received an academic dismissal for my poor performance I gave up on marine science. I wanted to study sharks, whales, reef ecosystems, etc., but most of the courses focused on geology, chemistry, and physics of the ocean, and most of the professors/advisers I ran into in the department weren’t especially friendly. When I’d say “I want to study sharks” they’d reply “What are you ever going to do with that? No one studies sharks.” Telling them that such a response was exactly why I thought it was important didn’t help much.

After working in a Target warehouse for a semester, I decided to go back to Rutgers in the Environmental Policies, Institutions, and Bureaucracies major, being that it would allow me to study environmental science but without having to worry about a math requirement (plus, I knew someone in this major who never went to class, was rather daft, and had a better GPA than I did, and so I foolishly though I could do it). Much to my dismay, however, most of the courses were about government, law, bureaucracy, and learning how to work in an office building rather than any kind of field work (converse to what I had been told by an adviser), and so my lack of interest translated into poor performance and I was dismissed once again.

At this point I made it my goal to really figure out what I wanted to do and resolved to get back into Rutgers, no matter what (it’s rare to be admitted to the same college three times as an undergraduate, but I knew I could do it). In a year and a half I got my associates degree in 4-12 education from Union County College (at this point paying for college myself, working full time in addition to coursework) and was admitted back into Cook College. I had picked the Conservation Ecology option under the Ecology & Evolution major, but even once I knew what I wanted to do I faced discouragement. Visiting the woman who was to become my (temporary) adviser, I was told that I simply did not have the math skills to do well in science and I should consider EPIB instead if I want to be involved with ecology. Another meeting with the professor of the Honors program and assistant dean of academic programs gave me reason to hope, however; she said that it sounded like I had finally found the right major for me and had little doubt that I would be able to succeed at Rutgers. Her support was crucial, especially since encouragement from many of my professors and advisers past and present has been essentially nonexistent.

So here I am, nearly two years later, hopefully about to finish my bachelor’s degree, going on to do who-knows-what next. Most of my trouble in the past was following what I thought was right for me on the advice of others when I wasn’t sure; if I had merely waited a year or two, or got my associates degree first, I might have had a less troublesome time in college. It’s also sad to say it, but I have learned far more through my own studies than I have in the various courses I’ve taken over the past six years; I feel more like I’m merely meeting arbitrary collegiate requirements than doing anything actually productive.

3. Do you happen to wish you were involved in another scientific field? If so, what one?

Although I wouldn’t say I’m actually involved in any field yet, there is little out there that I wish I did not know something more about. Even in my attempt to gain a broader knowledge of how organisms work, it certainly would be enlightened by a better understanding of physics, chemistry, genetics, cell biology, etc. The problem is that such topics often do not hold my attention, and if I am to gain even a cursory grasp of any it is going to be a long, uphill struggle. I can empathize with Charles Darwin when he wrote;

I attempted mathematics, and even went during the summer of 1828 with a private tutor (a very dull man) to Barmouth, but I got on very slowly. The work was repugnant to me, chiefly from my not being able to see any meaning in the early steps in algebra. This impatience was very foolish, and in after years I have deeply regretted that I did not proceed far enough at least to understand something of the great leading principles of mathematics, for men thus endowed seem to have an extra sense. But I do not believe that I should ever have succeeded beyond a very low grade.

Indeed, at this point I have almost entirely convinced myself that I do not (and cannot) understand mathematics, and I can only imagine the horrors that will befall me when I have to take Precalculus this fall, as well as a year of physics and another semester of chemistry.



3 responses

9 07 2007
Zach Miller

I have a sad confession to make.
Though I’ve been studying dinosaurs since I was a lad, and I’ve been studying them in a quasi-professional way for the last fifteen years, I do not have an Earth Sciences degree. Back when I was in college, the University of Alaska did not have a Geology degree (unless you went to Fairbanks, and nobody, I repeat, NOBODY wants to live in Fairbanks). They had a Geo minor, but no major. Also, the biology program required as much if not more math, statistics, and chemistry than biology. After getting a D in intro to chemistry and outright failing the next chemistry class, I decided that a Biology degree was not really going to happen. So I switched majors to my next passion: writing (English: Rhetoric).
I blew through that program, and the university just elected to have a Geology major just two years ago, so there’s always the chance I’ll go back. I’d be more interested in a straight paleo degree, but since both of Alaska’s paleontologists are now retired, that outlook is grim.

But I do work at the Alaska Museum of Natural History, so that’s a start, I suppose.

10 07 2007

Thanks for sharing Zach. If any school in New Jersey that my family could have afforded had a paleontology program, I probably would have gone straight into it. There days, though, it seems that there’s not so much direct training in paleo as there is in biology or geology, and you enter in doing either the field work or lab work based upon that (at least from my experience thus far).

My parents always pushed me towards English because I was a much better writer than a math student, but I couldn’t think of what I’d do with a degree in English other than teach it, hence giving up science. My main problem through all my schooling has been that I simply am atrocious when it comes to math, math coursework constantly holding me back. Like I mentioned in the post itself, I also have learned much more independently than through instruction so far, so most of the time my courses are just a matter of filling requirements (and so I’m not very intellectually invested in what’s going on in class). This next year is going to be brutal, but I hope I can escape college and move on to whatever comes next.

16 02 2008
Funny Bunny

It’s the other way around… Physicists want to be biologists.

Physics is a sick field. When I got my PhD, the American Physical Society estimated that about 3% of my class would get permanent jobs doing physics. This year’s budget has decimated the staff at every experimental particle physics — theoretical physicists have retreated from trying to explain experimental results, leading to a public backlash against string theory.

When I was in graduate school, both professors and students were rushing to get involved in biophysics because that appeared to be one of the few paths towards research funding and relevancy.

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