"Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact." -- Carl Sagan
I love science -- and I don't discriminate; I love any and all Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) fields actually. If you read my Twitter feed or Facebook wall you will find that I am constantly "geeking out" over this new study or that new finding in the fields of astronomy or ecology or medicine or technology etc. I love it so much that I bought a shirt that says "I (picture of an anatomical heart) science". As a resuscitation science researcher that shirt was very appropriate. So when someone at my academic university responded to my shirt with the question, "If you love science so much why don't you get a PhD?" I was taken aback, but then began to wonder: Can you not love science without a formal education or advanced degree? Do your scientific achievements mean less or lack value?
When I was young I knew I wanted to do two things, be a superhero (check! but please don't give away my secret identity) and work in a field of science. But my path was a circuitous one and I did not go to college after high school. Instead, I worked hard and played hard and learned many life-skills that I would not have otherwise gained, and I, and my work, are all the better for it. But after some time, I realized I needed to go to college and get a degree. Because of my secret superhero identity I wanted a field where I could help others and not wear a mask. Having met and been inspired by other superhero nurses, I completed my Bachelor's degree in nursing science and went to work. But that was not my end-game, as I knew I wanted to be a researcher. I wanted to ask and answer questions and make scientific advances in a systematic way. I never really considered myself "smart" based on traditional measures, but as Walter Isaacson said "Smart people are a dime a dozen. What matters is the ability to think different... to think out of the box." I couldn't agree more! Throughout my life I have never gone down the road most traveled -- I pride myself on making an impact via non-conventional means, by thinking and being outside the box.
Don't get me wrong, you have to be "smart" to pursue a career in STEM fields, but smart is not just one thing. As the consummate academic Albert Einstein stated, "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." Many of the world's great scientists, researchers, and inventors were neither formally educated nor advanced degree prepared, and quite a few of the most amazing early discoveries in STEM fields were made by untrained individuals. Take for example the following list of beauty school dropouts: my hometown hero Benjamin Franklin who had no formal education beyond the ripe young age of 8 but came up with numerous inventions that revolutionized not only my fair city but the world, including the lightning rod, bifocals, the odometer, and the urinary catheter to name just a few, our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, who is the only President to hold a patent -- thank you to my Aunt Paula for pointing this out to me -- for the invention of a device that lifts boats over large groups of fish, Vivien Thomas, a trailblazer in cardiac surgery who had no official medical school training, the amazing Ada Lovelace who was a mathematician and wrote the first computer program, and of course my all-time STEAM hero Leonardo da Vinci whose work on anatomy, art, and engineering revolutionized, well almost everything.
I was inspired by these people when I was young and throughout my life -- heck I wanted to be them. Therefore, I went back to school and completed two Master's degrees -- as you can see, I am not opposed to formal education or advanced degree programs (clearly, just ask my family, it is like an addiction). Advanced degrees in the sciences are a wonderful environment for learning and adding original research to various fields of study, and I do believe they add value, but they are not the only way to make a valuable contribution to those various fields of study nor are they the only way to learn and advance science and innovation. Just think about the current era of technology, where some of those making the most disruptive innovations are those without advanced degrees: Apple god Steve Jobs, Microsoft guru and more importantly philanthropist Bill Gates, fellow blogger and Tumblr creator David Karp, and Mark Zuckerberg...Facebook anyone?
One could argue (and some have: my hero Sir Ken Robinson) that formal education actually dampens creative and innovative thinking. I tend to agree, and I believe that is why it is the younger generation who are enriched with the ability to make groundbreaking scientific discoveries. Take for example the numerous programs for "young scientists", kids who are making tremendous advances in their respective fields. Earlier this year I was fortunate to be a judge at one of these events for young up-and-coming scientists at our annual citywide science fair. There was no shortage of amazing middle and high school students presenting solutions and ideas that could change the fields of medicine, physics, engineering, environmental science etc. It really warmed my scientific heart. These students, and the many others around the country, obviously do not have advanced degrees, and some are at the very beginning of their formal education, but they are making scientific breakthroughs and discoveries that many of us older highly educated folk may not have even consider to be possible. Part of their success is due to their ability to naturally think outside the box, imagine any and all possibilities, and most importantly, not be afraid to be wrong.
My advice to those kids, and to all kids, is to keep thinking outside the box, think up, and work on, solutions that seem unconventional. Because it is the unconventional people just like them who have moved STEM fields forward, and it will be the unconventional thinkers like them who will continue to do so. Science is amazing, and I see it everywhere and in all things and I (picture of an anatomical heart) science very much. To think that love of science, or anything else, is not valid because of the lack of a certain type of education is not only bad for the world at-large, but it is bad for innovation and it is most definitely bad for STEM.
Eventually I may go back to school yet again and complete a PhD program, and I may not (if my family asks, I am definitely not going back to school...wink, wink), but I will most certainly continue my love of science, my pursuit of adding to my field of study in a meaningful way, and I will most definitely continue to learn, because as the great innovator, scientist, and all-around out of the box thinker Leonardo da Vinci said "Learning never exhausts the mind." Keep on learning and contributing in whatever way works for you! I know I will!