Passion in Science - Childish behavior or science rocketfuel?

A few weeks back I had a series of conversations with some other scientists who decided to tell me different variations of ‘birds aren’t important’ ‘people who work on birds lack creativity’ ‘you aren’t as good of a scientists because you work on a charismatic animal’.

I’m used to non-scientists asking me why working on birds is important. I’m also used to the good-natured rivalry between different taxa and fields within ecology. We have a good back and forth between our lab and the fisheries lab next door, all in good fun. But these comments weren’t like those and they got under my skin. I wasn’t entirely sure how to respond to any of the comments I got, and probably did a poor job in the moment so I reached out the twittersphere for some input. talked to multiple scientists today who tried to belittle working with birds and the importance of studying them in any capacity (1/2) — Auriel Fournier (@amv_fournier) January 24, 2014

I understand the argument that birds get more money then some other taxa, and I appreciate that frustration, but to deny their importance? — Auriel Fournier (@amv_fournier) January 24, 2014

I got some great feedback, including thinking about myself and my career as studying a system rather then a taxa and how being system oriented might make me more marketable (good food for thought, especially this post from The Lab and Field). I need to mull over how I identify myself as a scientist some more though before writing up my complete thoughts, so look for that in the future sometime.

What I got immediately from this conversation were many of comments saying of course birds are important, just like every other taxa is important and if another scientist is belittling your taxa, it’s probably because of their issues, not your own. Maybe they are at a low point or lacking the passion I often exhibit for birds.

This last comment really hit home for me. Many of my peers have lost their passion and never get excited about science anymore. Many are planning on leaving science after they graduate because its just stress and long hours now. Sadly, I feel sometimes I alienate my friends with my excitement about rails, migration and science as whole. Especially when my passion for all things rail pours into excitement for the statistics, writing and all the other pieces of grad school required to study the sneaky little guys. I know that without my passion, I couldn’t be successful a graduate student and this quote from Kristopher Helgen summed this feeling up perfectly.

@ShamanSciences @amv_fournier @derekhennen Yes! Never let anyone dent your passion/excitement/motivation. That’s science rocket fuel! — Kristofer Helgen (@khelgen) January 24, 2014

I personally could not agree more. When I started grad school I noticed that some saw my passion as childish behavior. They seem to think science should be done for the sake or progress, or grants, or fame.

I totally disagree, loving your system or your organism is not a bad thing especially if it helps keep you motivated. Passion is ‘science rocket fuel’ and I don’t think it should ever be belittled, no matter if the organism is a widely loved charismatic species or more misunderstood one. Sure grad school isn’t all sunshine and rainbows and there are days that even my passion can’t save me from the stress load or endless road blocks but I want to help conserve our natural resources, including my favorite taxa, birds. I’ve committed myself to this PhD and to helping promote conservation through research, even on the bad days. I’ve got this strip from PhDComics taped above my desk to help ground me on those days when things seem bleak.

I am grateful to have the wonderful community on twitter to help set my head straight when I get caught up in the naysayers and once again I am choosing to use the passion that I have to motivate me everyday, from field work to writing and data analysis and all the fun in-between. I hope that this passion is not held against me as I continue on in my career and I plan to help encourage it in those around me. Have any of you ever faced similar situations where everyone around you seems passionless or your excitement for a certain species or taxa is belittled? I’d love to hear about how you dealt with it or how it’s changed your perspective on science!

To see the whole conversation on twitter click here.

Written on February 5, 2014