What scientists inspire you?

I’m trying to make the difficult transition out of postdoc-dom into a more permanent position. It’s been hard, full of rejection and difficult personal and professional negotiations, and my future is still very uncertain. During this time, I’ve been thinking a lot about the hard road that even some of the most famous scientists walked on the way to their world-changing discoveries. One scientist I’ve been thinking about frequently is Albert Einstein, because he went through an extended phase of failure and rejection. He spent nearly two years looking for work!

Over those two years, Albert Einstein was applying for jobs as a physics teacher. He was getting rejection after rejection after rejection. Does this sound familiar to any of you? (If not, you are probably not applying for jobs in the biological sciences—or you are either incredibly brilliant or incredibly lucky).  He became so depressed and desperate because of these unrelenting rejections that his father even wrote a pleading letter to a professor who was a distant acquaintance, begging for a job on Albert’s behalf—can you imagine the humiliation?

Unemployed and without any clear prospects, Einstein was unable to support his girlfriend or their daughter, Lieserl. It’s unclear to history what happened to this child, but she likely died as a baby of scarlet fever or was surrendered for adoption. Her parents did not speak publicly of her. Lieserl’s existence was only discovered from her parents’ letters after their deaths, letters in which her young parents did what most young parents do—decided on possible names, joked about their preferences for a girl or a boy, cherished her existence.

So, this is a portrait of Einstein when he finally was offered a job as a patent officer in Bern: he had just suffered countless professional and intellectual rejections, his parents were unable to continue to support him financially, he was in a tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend, and there was a baby and then, at some point, there wasn’t. No matter what happened to that baby, I find it impossible to believe that her parents suffered her loss easily.

In 1902, Einstein excitedly accepted the patent clerk job, which was decently paid but certainly not his passion. This job provided a degree of economic security that allowed Einstein to live decently, to marry, to have another child, to have time to think, and to make friends.

And then, 1905: the ‘Annus Mirabilis’, the miraculous year where he published the papers that irrevocably changed scientific thinking on Brownian motion, special relativity, mass-energy equivalence, and the photoelectric effect. The rest, of course, is history.

(Einstein, circa 1920, unknown photographer)

How did those ground-breaking papers happen? Is it simply the case that a scientist *will* do science, no matter their circumstances or professional opportunities, the same way that a writer will write, or an artist will create? I find this last thought really comforting: I can see the doors of academic scientific research closing to me, but I find it really difficult to imagine a life not doing science.

I don’t compare intellectually to the scientific luminary I’m writing about. Yet, I find it inspiring to think of amazing scientists as individuals, as humans who did not make easy decisions or live in easy times. Who found their own routes to discovery even when excluded from academic establishments. Whose flashes of inspiration and works of genius came through a sea of human emotions and human lives.

What scientists inspire you? Is it someone you’ve met or worked with? Someone whose current work is motivating to yours? Or is it someone you know only through history and textbooks?

This entry was posted in academia, broken dreams, early career scientist, finishing postdoctoral training, job search, Leaving Academia, role models. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to What scientists inspire you?

  1. notarealteachers says:

    This is a super helpful perspective. Like many women, I often take my rejections personally. Last week, I got a hand written note of thanks/encouragement from the chair of a department in from which I’d recently been rejected (!??). It was a good reminder that most rejection is not about me (at least that’s what I’m thinking in this moment).

    Liked by 2 people

  2. nafisajadavji says:

    Thanks for this post! I am in the same boat as you. Transitioning into an independent position seems impossible. The rejection is very hard to deal with, but we shall persist.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is such an interesting aspect of Einstein’s career that I did not know about — thank you for this post!

    I often wonder if the scientists who have always inspired me have also led me to have expectations of myself that are MUCH too high. The women who inspire me succeeded because they [sometimes literally] sacrificed everything to be able to do, and be recognized for, their work. The woman who is my current PI is no different, and neither are many well-known male scientists. They have always been superheroes, and I, a mere human.

    In grad school, I finally met a scientist who continues to inspire me because she is an extraordinary thinker and kind mentor who also puts family first. However, she has been lucky in establishing herself as a respected scientist in her field without being a PI. It’s almost unheard of, but it helps me to think that it can happen.


    • Megan says:

      I don’t think anyone is really a superhero, and I bet a lot of the scientists who have made such extreme sacrifices for success have their moments of doubt as well. We only see people from the outside (ie no one knew about Einstein’s Lieserl) and we usually can’t see the tumult of their inner lives (I may do another post on this topic).

      And, yes, I agree it’s always refreshing to see people circumvent the PI route and find scientific success!


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