In Australia, remarkable young scientists are working hard every day. Lined upon the walls of my institution are the scientific publications of all staff and students in my division, an impressive amount of which are authored by young researchers and PhD students. I see the value of young scientists every day.
Doing science is a tough gig. There’s pressure, questioning from those around you, and a lot of self-doubt, but I promise it’s worth pursuing.
Being a young scientist in a world that constantly reminds us that we need to be the best, that we need a competitive edge, a novelty, an absolute genius above all others – despite limited academic job opportunities and research funding – is outright exhausting.
It’s mentally taxing and somewhat isolating. There’s nothing like that good ole’ bout (or ten) of Imposter Syndrome which decides to creep up on you, just when you start to think you’ve got this research thing all figured out.
Everything indicated you’d be better off in industry post-PhD. You’d have better job prospects, a higher income, improved work-life balance – and you’re constantly reminded of it.
You’ll experience critique from all sides of your social sphere, from family and friends, to people you’ve never met. Occasionally, an air of confusion will accompany the critique or sometimes, someone will think you’re unaware (... please), or worse, stupid - without ever saying the word.
In fact, I have found myself having to justify (not that I should have to, nor should I have succumbed to doing so), my choice to pursue a career in research on numerous occasions. “Why a PhD? Do medicine, you’re smart enough...” like it’s a compliment, right after you’ve extinguished my flame.
But despite all of this, my fire for science still burns. It burns brighter than it ever has before, with every new discovery or research idea. And I love what I do. I know that I have limited academic job opportunities post-PhD, I know about the funding crisis, and yes I know I need to be the best. But what I also know, is that I was absolutely, one hundred per cent, put on this Earth to do science... so what do I do?
Unless you have been living under a rock, you will already know that our population is aging. By the year 2056, it is expected that one in four people will be age 65 or over. As a result, the proportion of the population living with neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease (for which there is currently no cure) and the occurrence of acute brain attack, such as stroke (where most people survive, but are left with severe cognitive and motor impairments) will dramatically increase.
The aging population will increase the burden of disease in Australia, putting a strain on already stretched government resources, and will be detrimental to both the practice of best healthcare, and the individual.
The (discouraged) young scientists and PhDs of this generation will be the senior researchers developing cures for, and continuing the hard fight against devastating diseases, finding ways to mediate or even ameliorate the effects of brain injury on health outcomes, and working to establish effective rehabilitation regimes or treatments that’ll see those unable to walk after severe stroke or traumatic brain injury, walk again. These are just some of the reasons why we need to persuade and enable, rather than discourage, young people to stay in and/or pursue science.
Currently, huge discrepancies exist between the number of brilliant new STEM initiatives in our schools and the investment in young scientists. Every year, fantastic new STEM initiatives are rolled out across Australian schools. Just recently, the Australian government pledged an additional $12 million to restore a focus on, and interest in, STEM subjects across Australian primary and secondary schools. The government claim that “starting this interest at the school level will help increase the number of students taking up STEM subjects in higher education and in their careers and help keep Australia competitive internationally in these important fields”. In other words, we recognise that science is important, and we’re finally forking out the dosh to get kids engaged and interested in science, but if and once they do decide to pursue science as a career, the means (academic positions, funding, resources) are sparse. This means that passionate, young scientists are being forced away, left behind closed doors once they have finished their PhD, or even undergraduate degree. I see that as a problem.
But despite the predicament, I remain hopeful. The triumph of Alan Mackay-Sim, a pioneering biomedical scientist, turned Australian of the Year, is a huge win for the field. High-profile scientists like Mackay-Sim will bring about discussion regarding the need to invest in young people pursing careers in science. In fact, in his Australian of the Year acceptance speech, Mackay shed light on the fact that, as a nation, we need to invest in young scientists and give them great careers – so that we can continue to develop healthcare treatments that will reduce future costs and disability.
- RELATED VIDEO: Interview with Prof Alan Mackay-Sim
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