When E.O. Wilson came to speak at UA a number of weeks back, the Human Behavioral Ecology Research Group (HBERG) lab was fortunate enough to host him at a smaller venue for EvoS students. This was more personal and friendly than his talk the evening before to a packed auditorium at the Bryant Conference Center. There was plenty opportunity for Q&A, so I asked him:
“You’ve been very successful in your line of work, and after decades of research and scholarship, you’re writing now perhaps more than ever. What advice would you give students who are interested in a career in science?
E.O. Wilson’s Response:
‘Fieldwork to a scientist is like an epic story because it’s very personal. It’s a story of experience and history, and it must be thought of as an epic anecdote in one’s life. There are three archetypes I must suggest in order to be successful in this line of work.
1) “Discover the lost world.” – Never fail to be enamored with your research, and let your passion for the field and hunger for discovery lead your life.
2) “Internalize your Holy Grail” – Every discipline has one, and a researcher needs to be competent in their research and discipline. This keeps one grounded as to the bigger questions that initially led them to implement these theories and methods in the field.
3) “Know good versus evil” – Capture the triumph of evil through the use of science. Use science for good! Use it to solve problems, create progress, help people, foster a brighter future, etc.
All together, these archetypes elevate one above the basic travelogues of amateurs, to create a scientific quest of passion. As for pursuing a career as a researcher, don’t be a galley-slave to professors for your whole life. Understand that one should march away from the guns! If big wigs are working in a progressive area of research or in a particular site, learn the field but go somewhere else and be the top dog instead of a step in the chain of command. Also, remember that the drive to create something on your own is better than scientific intelligence, and scientific entrepreneurship is the genesis of the best research.
Interdisciplinary collaboration is beneficial because you don’t have to be versed in all the sciences to be successful, as the very nature of science is to develop partnerships. Creative thought comes from but a single person, and it will always exist where there’s passion for one’s purpose.
There’s an optimal level of brightness that doesn’t approach genius, in which the researcher is bright enough to imagine an idea, but not too smart to get bored with it. Actually, it’s not the geniuses, but the student with many intermediate interests, who end up changing the world. Therefore, you are needed! There may not be many jobs right now, but you’ll find one eventually if the passion is there, and your contribution is not only important, it’s mandatory!’