• Dr. Timothy Smith

Why I Became a Scientist

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Growing up in a house with both parents involved in the medical profession created a very science-friendly environment. Frank discussions of disease and treatments were a part of every dinner and social gathering with other medical professionals. I commonly overheard conversations about artificial heart valves and new surgical techniques and looked through the numerous medical journals with pictures of sick people always with the black bar covering the patient's eyes to protect their privacy. Beyond medicine, as a kid, I loved air and space travel. In our science-friendly family, birthdays and Christmases brought presents including model airplanes, rockets, a microscope, chemistry sets, and a telescope as well as books on science of many varieties. Beyond science, though, I pursued sports from baseball and soccer to skiing and sailing with great passion. In truth, I was more of a jock than a bookworm all the way through my high school career. Only following several broken ankles did I come to realize that my future would not center around sports, and my life changed dramatically in college.

With striking speed, I abandoned the gym and picked up several vices as well as falling under the spell of hanging out and talking for hours. In college, I studied chemistry but included many other classes such as music and writing, and I slowly began to realize why science drew me in so much more powerfully than any other discipline. Science, through rigorous experimentation and showing your results to other scientists in your field, seeks pure, objective truth. Well-designed experiments provide results that either confirm or deny a hypothesis (a hypothesis is a prediction or explanation that can be tested using scientific experiments). I sincerely wanted objective truth, something that I could believe in, and science offered a truth that lets the facts speak. You cannot talk your way out of scientific results. I saw science as one of the most powerful technologies humans have ever invented. Science did not allow people to simply guess how things happened. Through science, we were able to find out how diseases like cholera, tuberculosis, and the flu worked so we can prevent and treat them. Science allows us to pursue the truth using a method of guessing and experimenting to find out more about the world around us.

After college, I moved to San Francisco and worked as a laboratory technician in several places, including the University of California, San Francisco doing cancer research. At this point in my mid-twenties coming off some hard times in my personal life, I was at a career crossroads and knew that to progress in my field and have the opportunities to grow, I would need to earn a doctorate. If undergraduate school opened my eyes to the power and beauty of objective science, graduate school made me truly appreciate the power of scientific facts and careful experiments. After my first year of graduate school, I hit the lab with an excited spirit and a new hypothesis to test. My first theory, after six months of experimenting, proved to be completely wrong. Though the failed hypothesis disappointed me, I could see how the scientific method (the term, scientific method, means the process of using experiments that give results that prove or disprove a hypothesis) really worked. During graduate school, I truly fell in love with science and appreciated its power to identify the truth.

From my youth, science surrounded me, and my family encouraged studying science. In many ways, I felt drawn to science in that environment, but I for the longest time related more to sports than anything else. Following some injuries, I completely switched my focus to the classroom and realized my deep need to find the truth. Science more than any other discipline and method offered to find reliable, objective truth. Science serves to dispel superstition and open our eyes to how the universe actually works. Having worked now in the research community for many years, the power of science to free us from superstition and opinion still fascinates and motivates me more than ever before.