Reason and Purpose

by Shannon – Our website has been silent. We have experienced unspeakable tragedy on our little campus. First, a member of our lab met with a serious accident, but is fortunately recovering slowly. Then, just a couple of weeks later, our campus lost one of our students forever.

At these times, one always seeks the answer to two questions: the reason and the purpose.

For reason, there is no answer. There are always means improve safety, health and wellness on a campus to prevent the likelihood of tragedy. We must absolutely discuss these means over the next weeks and months, and address positive change by any means possible. But there is no one to blame. There is no one who is at fault. And there is absolutely no reason for these tragedies. All of us know that if there was any way we could have known these events were going to happen we would have done anything in our power to stop them. Now, all we can do is hold on to each other and learn to live through this together – not to forget or to move past, but to keep moving.

Which brings us to the second question – our purpose. So often in our rush to test scientific hypotheses and create controlled conditions we forget that the purpose of our academic institute is not to “do science”. Our purpose is to create scientists.

As a PI, my purpose is not to get my research into fancy journals, get big grants, or give TEDx talks. My purpose is to teach and advise my lab members to become creative, resilient, and intuitive scientists. And their purpose is to learn. The science is just the means to educate. This also means, of course, that we are not in the business of test tubes and PCR machines. We are in the business of people. Our currency may be knowledge, but our product is the future of this planet.

I value every time my students make mistakes. I cherish each question they ask. Because it is not their success that makes them great, nor is it their failure. It is their persistence. Each time I see students fail – a test, an experiment, sometimes even an institute, and they try again, it is a victory.  Success is not a life without problems. Success is living beyond those problems.

Which is why these tragedies are so painful. Our people are our purpose, and their loss means losing the very goal of our profession. No longer can I help that student to overcome adversity. No more can I listen to her problems. Never again can I rejoice in her little victories. But I can be there for those left behind. I can be a resource, a listener, and a shoulder to cry on. It is not this past I want to focus on, but the future. Because every student who goes beyond me to live a determined life is a victory. They will be so much greater than I will ever hope to be. And they will always be my greatest achievement.

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