The (young) scientist of today

By definition I am a scientist of today. I could not be otherwise, unless I could travel in time, in which case I would be a trans-time scientist. But of course this is not the case, nor is it technologically possible yet, so I’ll simply stick to the present, leaving the mental exercise of imagining a scientist of the future for another day.

So what does being a scientist of today mean? First of all, it means that I get to learn pretty cool things everyday and that I get to know and work with really cool people, who enrich my life and constantly challenge my world views. If it was not for them, I would easily fall into the self-complacency hole. On the other hand, being a (young) researcher of today (aka Early Career Researcher, or ECR for short) also means that I live a precarious job situation in which being a scientist is a “current state” that could abruptly change if I (our you!) fail to secure a longed-for tenure-track position. Being a scientist has meant the latter for way too many people and so I don’t discard it for me. And the current political situation in many countries, together with the widespread financial crisis and the common view that science is a privilege, are not good news for us, nor for our society.

But today I’ll do an effort to focus more on the positive aspects that keep me up and running the race. I often find it too easy to lean towards the negative side of things, and so talking about them would not represent the challenge that I want to take today. I have already mentioned the people and vaguely referred to the many things I learn everyday. Well, I will try to be more specific from here onward (not a promise though!).

When I finished my undergrad as a biologist, I took the evolutionary biology itinerary, which involved learning about all main biological groups that populate the Earth. These include microbes, cryptograms (mosses and lichens), vascular plants, arthropods, non-arthropods invertebrates, etc. Getting to know who I share our planet with helped me a lot to widen my views and ideas of what I (or us as a species) represent in the Cosmos. That is when I truly started to appreciate the vast biodiversity that surrounds us and that is exactly what sparked my interest to become a scientist. I could satisfy my never ending curiosity and still be paid.

Then I went to grad school, where I began my training as a scientist. There I learnt the important difference between being a plain student and being a professional, even if your discipline requires you to be a “professional student”. From that moment on, I realised that I did not want to be called a student anymore, but a scientist in its own right, which I think was an early and lucky realisation for me. Nowadays I still see many people who consider someone who is pursuing a scientist career as a simple student, with all the stigma that this implies. Even right now I struggled to avoid the term PhD student. However, consider for a moment that if you start your learning process at a private company you are most likely just the “new guy”, but never a student. So let’s move on!

Anyhow, doing my PhD allowed me to learn how to work independently, yet not in isolation. It also forced me to improve my English, which was quite rusty after years of deficient formation. It also taught me that there are incredibly good people outside the borders of my country, something you don’t always realise if you don’t have the privilege to travel and get to meet “foreign” people. Of course, reading papers, books and almost anything that fell on my hands was part of the duties I was being paid for, and so I went ahead and took advantage of this situation to become an expert in my field. In my particular case, this is global change ecology, with a soft spot for the consequences of nitrogen deposition on the biodiversity and functioning of terrestrial ecosystems. It is now my privilege to be considered an expert!

My lab at the time, if it could be called such a thing, it was precariously equipped and our budget limited. Plus, there were no other ECRs to work with, which meant that I had to train my imagination in order to achieve my final goal of presenting a decent thesis without relying on a well-thought preconceived plan. There were almost no strategy whatsoever and yet I did it. This is another soft skill that I proudly possess too thanks in part to this period of my life and I know many other ERC scientists, many of them also good friends of mine, who had to do the same and who also succeeded. Unfortunately that was not the case for everyone I know, meaning that a good deal of money has been “wasted” by our governments (in my case I speak about the Spanish government) not because those who abandoned were not good or committed workers, but because in many cases there was a big lag between the mindset of their supervisors and the real world that we as young scientists were facing.

While I was fighting to survive my PhD I did not know (no one had told about it) that to be a scientist of today you need to know how to program (at least in R), which also requires a very good understanding of what exactly you are doing (i.e., of the stats) and why. I did not know either that data visualization was so important to communicate the science that we do, to our colleagues and to the public. And no one explained me that I should use a reference manager like Mendeley or Readcube to curate and insert my references into a word processor. It sounds silly, but many young scientists of today face this precarious situation that I faced. And this is not to blame anyone, because there really isn’t anyone to blame. This is just to say that, above all, being a scientist of today more than ever means going out there and see what others, particularly the leaders in your field and in other fields, are doing, instead of just hoping (perhaps naively) that your supervisor is a scientist of today. Because he/she probably isn’t (or at least not necessarily!).

I am so grateful to all those people who wrote blog posts, books, etc. on how to write well, how to succeed in academia, how to do this or that in R…, not only because they have helped me a lot but because above all they are inspiring me and others to help others in return and that should, at some point, reverberate throughout the whole society. I am also thankful to many of my fellow Twitter users for sharing their knowledge with me in many different ways.

Now, after not few headaches, I can decently code in R and come up with pretty decent ways to visualize my data, many times about biodiversity, which brings me back to my undergrad origins. Then I will write the paper using some of the storytelling techniques that I have learnt while I simultaneously introduce all the references with my Mendeley account. After I get that paper published (that’s another story!) I will be able to efficiently communicate it to the audience I want to target using my Twitter and Facebook accounts. I can even track the impact of my research in the social networks by looking at my altmetrics score in my Impacstory account and get credit for my anonymous reviews in Publons.

Who knows for how long but I can finally say that I feel that I am a scientist of today!

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