Clayton Aldern: Beak of the lab rat

Friday, May 24, 2013
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2013

“There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. Even drought bears fruit. Even death is a seed.”

That’s Jonathan Weiner. The Beak of the Finch. The book — that quote — mostly turned out to be about progress. Standing on the shoulders of giants. Opportunity. Serendipity. Probably a touch of idealism.

I “did research” at Brown. I researched out of love and sometimes obligation and sometimes necessity. I inched my way onto those opportunistic shoulders of giants.

A few weeks back, I asked my postdoc why he was in research. “You can ask whatever questions you want,” he offered. “And they’ll pay you.”

They’ll pay you if you make the proper discoveries. Some say the greatest scientists are the luckiest. The number of serendipitous discoveries that changed the course of science is enough to warrant whole books written on the matter of serendipitous discovery — which doesn’t really do much for the aspiring scientist who is told that discipline is the name of the game. I’ve been prodigiously lucky in a number of ways during my time at Brown. Profound scientific discovery has not been one of them.

But Brown has been forgiving of my inability to say anything terribly enlightening with science. Rather, it has rewarded the effort. Those granting tenure, unfortunately, tend to be less forgiving. In entering the academic research jet stream, we hear the horror stories. There’s a plethora of PhDs and a paucity of prospects. No matter how many statistical techniques you’ve got under your belt, how many internships you’ve held, how well you can construct alliterations, the average age of receiving your first R01 grant is growing steadily, and right now it’s around 42. And unless something is done about it, sequestration is going to wring the insides from the worn-out ketchup packet that is the National Institutes of Health.

I’m all set for grad school. Graduation is still terrifying. There’s plenty of room at the bottom.

The aforementioned postdoc recently apologized to me for the lack of substantial results unearthed over the last two years of my thesis research. I raised an eyebrow and made it expressly clear why I didn’t understand his apology. Because of my thesis, I could program in three languages. I could run electrophysiology experiments and pump out multitaper coherograms like it was my job. (It was my job.) I gushed on, and as romanticism tumbled out of my mouth, I realized I had stumbled upon my serendipity. It was cheesy and conceited and kind of a stretch, but it was serendipity. It was self-discovery.

“I fully expect serendipity. I expect to be shaped and molded; pushed and pulled; bended and twisted.”

That’s idealistic Clay, in his first-year response to Weiner’s text. Aside from the liberal use of semicolons, I only see one flaw. By definition, we can’t expect serendipity. That’s less self-evident than it sounds. I mean to say that we can’t go looking for it. As we go through university, we’re changing — certainly, we can assume that’s the case, but we’re rarely tracking the minutiae. And then all of sudden we realize we changed and that college worked and that serendipity was there just when we didn’t expect it like it was supposed to be and that maybe there was something about those finch beaks after all.

There is a special Providence in the fall. The trees might not be blossoming, but the leaves are turning, and that Brown, giddy idealism makes College Hill pulsate. I’m leaving Brown feeling okay about that idealism. Research is having the privilege to ask questions. It might be the most idealistic job out there.

Clayton Aldern, like most of us, lives off Hope. On Tuesdays he can be reached at Captain Seaweed’s, considering the lobster raffle.