Why Do You Do What You Do?

Solving mysteries? Stellar colleagues? Saving the world?

Last week, I wrote about why the why can be hard for scientists. This week, I offer perspectives from scientist colleagues on their whys. All share a passion and commitment to engage beyond the walls of the ivory tower. But their underlying ‘whys’ vary a lot.

Perhaps not too surprisingly, this series of posts are motivated, in part, by reflecting on my own whys. One of the reasons I do what I do is the opportunity to connect with some amazing people, including the inspiration and energy I draw from the contributors here.

Scientists have many reasons for doing what they do, and just as many reasons for sharing (or not sharing) their whys. I hope the whys of these scientists – and their willingness to share them, not only here, but also more broadly – inspire you as much as they have inspired me.

I do what I do … to tap into my inner Sherlock Holmes

BRIAN HARVEY (University of Wisconsin, Madison): I feel extremely lucky that the work I get to do feels like a hobby to me. When I am putting in long hours at work, I get the same feeling I did when I was a kid building models with my brother. My work is like being a detective for the natural world, using ecological data as clues in the mystery of how forests are changing now and in the future.

DIANA WALL (Colorado State University): I love what I do – there is a joy in exploring, and a sense of being a detective and unraveling a tiny mystery that has been hidden. Science is work but it is also fun. Asking why? Why not? Wonder why? I like to figure things out. Most of the time it doesn’t work out, which leads me back to thinking about why.

… because I care about people and places

HEATHER LESLIE (Brown University): I care about people’s connections to ocean ecosystems and particularly to coastal places. I want to understand the material and emotional basis of these links and what the consequences are – for people and for nature. How I investigate these connections reflects deeply who I am and how I choose to focus my creative energy and time.

… to shed light on society’s challenges and choices

BORIS WORM (Dalhousie University): Because I am curious. Because I love life. And because there is nothing quite as exciting as seeing something, recognizing something that nobody else has seen. The sense of discovery, in a sea of unknown, is what keeps me going. Also I feel an obligation to ‘be useful’ as Simon Jennings once put it quite simply. Scientists are useful. Because they tell us stuff we don’t know, but in many cases ought to know in order to make conscious and well-informed choices.

JIM BARRY (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute): For me, at least, there is always a why, often layered. On a personal scale, I am curious – I want to know how the world that we live in works. Whatever the specific issue might be, I want to figure out the puzzle. On another scale, I love the ocean and want to know just how large a threat we humans are to the integrity and function of ocean systems – biochemical, biological, and ecological. In another way, I too want to ‘save the world’ – in my own small way of helping shed some light on science problems that are important for society.

… for a love of science, relevance, and relationships
“My motivation – to base management on the most relevant science – that seems like apple pie to me. Who wouldn’t eat it up?” - Tania Schoennagel Image by Carol Atlantica via flickr

“My motivation – to base management on the most relevant science – that seems like apple pie to me. Who wouldn’t eat it up?” – Tania Schoennagel
Image by Carol Atlantica via flickr

TANIA SCHOENNAGEL (University of Colorado, Boulder): My why has three parts. I do what I do first and foremost because I just simply love science! I love solving the mystery of a good science question and sleuthing through forests and data to find the answer. But, that alone would not be enough to keep my fire going. Asking questions that have relevance to society and management make the scientific process (which can also be hard, tedious, lonesome, frustrating at times) worthwhile, and gives bigger meaning, and broader scope to what I do day to day. The last reason why I love what I do is the people I get to interact with. I work with amazing, smart, interesting, motivated, funny, diligent colleagues and managers and it is a joy to communicate and bounce ideas off one another, challenge and support one another, plant ideas together and watch them take root. If any one of these whys were missing, I don’t think I would enjoy what I do half as much.

… because of the whole enchilada of science itself!

MONICA TURNER (University of Wisconsin): I love the whole endeavor of science. I love the freedom to be able to identify questions that are exciting, interesting and relevant. I like the intellectual part of thinking through ideas, brainstorming and honing the questions. I enjoy the time in the field, collecting data and working in some amazing places. I find the data analyses fun, even though the hard work begins when the initial analyses do not show the expected effects; then, you really have to start working to find out what the data actually say. And, I enjoy the writing, the weaving together of the big picture and how each individual study contributes to some larger questions or issues … I also really enjoy working with other people. Most of my research is collaborative, including long-term and new collaborators, as well as the students and postdocs with whom I have the privilege of working. Science is so much more fun when done with others. And, my ideas develop more quickly, and to a better outcome, when they benefit from the back-and-forth exchanges with others. I genuinely enjoy the people I work with, so the social part of science counts for me. Lastly, I really like the challenge of learning new things, living on the steep part of the learning curve (which can also be a bit intimidating), working in diverse ecosystems, and having the opportunity to follow my curiosity.

Up next: Motivations, Credibility, and Advocacy

The notion of service to society, reminiscent of Jane Lubchenco’s social contract for science, is a common thread across these whys. Yet, the passion for what we do can easily get mixed up with perceptions of activism – a perception that can be “the death knell to a scientists’ credibility”, in the words of my colleague, Max Moritz from UC Berkeley. In a forthcoming post, I’ll share more scientists’ perspectives on navigating this aspect of sharing their whys, with a focus on credibility and advocacy.

 What motivates you?

I’m taking this whole inner philosopher thing very seriously these days, so here are more questions for you:

  • Have your motivations for doing your science changed over time? Are yours the same now as they were in grad school? Why or why not?
  • Do you find yourself being defensive about your whys? With whom? What have you done to overcome that?
  • Are you, as engaged scientists, more predisposed to lead from your whys compared to your colleagues? In other words, is this something you learned to do or something you were more likely to do?

I look forward to hearing more from you. (And please leave me a piece of apple pie.)

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About Karen McLeod

Karen McLeod is the Interim Executive Director of COMPASS. She's passionate about supporting scientists to be agents of change in the world. Trained as an ecologist, she draws inspiration from the west's rich landscapes - especially its mountains and coasts - and endless opportunities for outdoor adventure.

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  1. […] Karen’s post this week features the ‘whys’ of a number of conservation scientists… […]

  2. […] Scientists share why they do science. (COMPASS Blogs) […]

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