Becoming scientists

Berkeley Connect in Physics speakers share with undergraduates why they became scientists

physics panel
On September 24, Berkeley Connect in Physics hosted a panel of scientists from UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who spoke about the challenges and rewards of being a scientist. Undergraduates were given the opportunity to ask questions of the panelists, who weighed in on everything from where they started to why they never gave up.

When asked where they started, many had surprising answers. For Kathryn Zurek, who studies dark matters, and Daniel Kasen, a physics professor at UC Berkeley, science was not even part of their plan when they first came to college. “I started on the opposite end,” Zurek said, explaining that she had wanted to pursue music. Professor Kasen also was initially more interested in the humanities, taking physics only to be a more well-rounded person – but discovering, much to his surprise, that he enjoyed it. Phillip Hasinger wanted to be a mathematician since he was young, and Naomi Ginsburg, now a professor of chemistry, started her undergraduate career in an engineering program. Bryan Mendez said he once dreamed of being a world-class scientist, but admitted, “I thought I knew where I was going, but in retrospect, I had no idea.” In graduate school, Mendez realized a talent he didn’t know he had – teaching – and soon found himself teaching several classes every semester. He has since spent over 20 years as an education specialist at the Center for Science Education at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory.

Many of the speakers emphasized research as an important way of determining if becoming a scientist is for you. In fact, it was Professor Ginsburg’s summer research positions that shaped what she wanted to do and motivated her to pursue graduate school. Many also credited the people who inspired them along the way. “There were tons of people who contributed to my intellectual growth, I can’t pinpoint just one,” Ginsberg said when asked about an influential person in her life. “But it was important for me to know that so many people cared whether I understood the material or succeeded.” Hasinger credited his love for math and science to his family. His father was a mathematician, his mother and sister math teachers, and his grandmother a farmer. “We calculated everything,” he said. “If we needed paint for the walls, my family would make it into a math equation.”

One student asked whether the panelists ever wanted to give up, to which they responded with a resounding yes. “When you are essentially faced with the fact that you don’t know what is going on, it is difficult and you have to learn to cope,” states Zurek. But she told students what she told herself shortly after she graduated. “I said, ‘I enjoy it and I’m going to do it for as long as I can do it, and I’ll see where it goes’ and it worked.” Matt Pyle, a recent post doc, added that of his graduating class, over two-thirds have pursued other careers, including data analysis and start-ups. “Many of them found jobs that they love in other fields, and that’s absolutely a possible path to take,” Pyle said. The panel agreed that pursuing a career in science was not easy, but definitely rewarding.

“When you’re a scientist, it becomes intertwined with your daily life,” Kasen said of science. “It’s not a 9 – 5 job. It’s always on your mind.”


posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant