Just a Student
I am a physics student who has delved into my first theoretical physics internship. From this transition of student to scientist, I’ve gained some insights that have shifted my view on academia and the world of scientific research. Recently, I’ve learned a lot about what truly makes a scientist, or rather, the difference in attitude from that of a student. As an undergraduate student at University of Toronto, the topics I’ve learned have only been applied in the form of tests and exams. Ultimately, it’s when you leave the lecture halls and enter real research where you can begin to shift your attitude from student to scientist. Consequently, throughout this process and transition I have now become cognizant of the passivity of student culture and its divergence from real research.
Expectations vs. Reality
My research involves investigating and ultimately simulating a specific quantum process called Interatomic Coulomb Electron Capture (ICEC), which to me was an intangible concept at first. That is, until I I was thrown in the deep end, constantly asking “what is my task? what are my duties? what am I actually studying?”. Alas, the second day of work was when I realized that my approach to this internship was completely wrong. I subconsciously put myself in a passive role — a student rather than a scientist. I expected clear tasks to be given to me, like it would be in courses at university. Evidently, this was not the case at all. The answer to all of my questions were, to my surprise, “you choose”.
This was a level of authority I never felt ready to accept. Choosing my own tasks? Figuring out what I am interesting in exploring and researching within ICEC? It was all so foreign to me, but after a brainstorming session on the second day of work, I learned that I was not here to answer questions or to look up answers. I was here to ask them, and to find answers to questions that I found interesting. Thus, finding my own sense of autonomy as a scientist.
The Way Collaboration plays with Autonomy
Taking initiative, exploring topics, asking questions where the answers are yet to be known to anyone. It was a totally different experience than being a student, per se. Although this sense of independence can be enthralling and exciting, one must remember that science is never done alone.
I have a role, but it is not independent from the roles of others in the project. Everyone has their focus, and they are all intricately connected in one way or another. Throughout the past few weeks, I’ve learned that there is a fine balance that must be kept between independence and collaboration. In fact, my best scientific epiphanies happened between simple exchanges of ideas and conversations, which led to great insights for me and my project focus.
In some ways, it can be difficult to try and collaborate on a project with others when you feel like your focuses are so distant. However, the reality of the situation is that collaborating and autonomy in science have a synergetic effect. They work harmoniously to provide a significantly deeper understanding of a topic by looking at it through several angles. Seeing this quantum reaction from the perspective of a chemist, a computer scientist, a mathematician, and a physicist, has only enriched my understand of what this process truly involves.
Although I’ve learned the physics in theory, it wasn’t until I began my internship that I realized the only way to truly learn is to do. Slowly but surely, this is what I’m doing. Perhaps I haven’t found this balance yet, but at least I know that I’m on the right path to figuring it out.
(Stay tuned for my next blog post, which will dive deeper into what my research actually involves!)