So today is a bit special. Confinement and social distancing make it easier to think about oneself and guess what, this introspective mood also got to me. Just like everyone at some point in their life, I started wondering how I got to where I am; meaning doing a PhD in neuroscience. Yes, that is an interesting question! What made me undertake long studies to study the brain? I will tell you about (almost) everything I think has a role to play in a decision I am proud of, yet criticise heavily (which is something I do not cover here).
To begin with, I could tell you about the amazing teachers that I had back in school and that they were just so good that I chose them as role models… but it is not true. They were not bad teachers, far from that (well most of them)! Just that they did not play any role in the balance towards me going into science or me going into writing (and in the end am I not doing both?). So where does that science knowledge, that curiosity about how the world works comes from? I got it from elsewhere of course. I am a bit sad to admit that education did not provide the thrills I am now experiencing. In a way, I regret the educational system could not give me more and I wish this will change for generations to come (and once again, this was not due to my teachers).
So now, let us dive into the gritty details of my passion for science. I think it all started with books. Plenty of books. You see, I was one of these kids that prefer the company of paper or a screen rather than the one of fellow humans. Free time in my timetable? Library time. Free time without a computer at hand? Reading time. Free time with computer at hand but bored? Just read more. I dabbled with historical fiction and discovered through it a world I would never have imagined: crime novels. For this, I have Evelyne Brisou-Pellen to thank: with her series Garin Trousseboeuf, she introduced me to the joys of logical deduction. You see, investigation is a bit like science: pulling strings together, gathering your clues (results) and linking them to the testimonies (publications). So yes, my love for deductions and logical thinking comes from there and also from the silly plans murderers come up with in Detective Conan (Gosho Aoyama).
My readings, though, did not stop at crime novels and I was also absorbed by fantasy and science-fiction. Philipp Pullman with ‘His Dark Materials’ also shaped that will to discover more. Not in the logical way, not like a murder case but more like a leap into the unknown. Science, indeed, is not limited to logic. It has this feeling of deep diving, exploring uncharted territories. Not physical ones, but spiritual ones. What I like about science is how we build it step by step, stone after stone like a pyramid. Except, unlike the pyramid, science is not a finite building, it is like a palace with more than three dimensions that are intertwined with one another. Biology is as much about physics and chemistry that it is about social science and linguistics. This is pretty much how I always pictured knowledge (in a really broad sense).
There is more! Literature literally threw more science into my open arms. Emile Bravo with his sadly untranslated “épatantes aventures de Jules” (Jules’s awesome adventures) also put some basic knowledge into my brain. The first tome of this comic book is about space travel, the second one about genetics the third about speleology, paleontology and such… and it goes on! Just imagine following the adventures of an average teenager (which I was at this time) that discovers the world and its rules. Basically the recipe is as follows: 10% science, 40% good characters one can relate to, 20% crazy characters and whatever is left is humour and guinea-pig. Of course, I remember the jokes, but along with them, I remember the small bits of science.
Around the same time, I also binged watched a small French series called “C’est pas Sorcier!” with my brother. The idea is to visit important sites around the world (mines, ships, refineries, mountains, caverns…) and answer questions with small models to explain the science or history behind the observed facts. I must have seen hundreds of these science nuggets and I am amazed at how simple and good they were! Even nowadays I would happily watch one again and find it entertaining, educational and just filled with joy. Let’s say that for a more “intellectual” child, I was quite fond of Jamy and how he was explaining everything without being obnoxious about it.
I guess this is almost all of it. There are last details that I have to go through. I was raised without TV and I actually think this is one of the best thing not to have. However, instead of spending time in front of a screen that you just watch, I spent time in front of a screen you can interact with: a computer. Somehow, people tend to forego video-games as a media (it is changing, I know) but for me, it was just like any other. There were not many scientific games but I would like to point out one that, despite not speaking about the science behind its gameplay, made me understand how cool science could be. In a weird way, sure, but cool.
This game is “Impossible Creatures” and I cannot tell you how much I liked it for all the wonky animal hybrids you could create (just use the skunk). The principle is quite simple, the Sigma technology can merge two animals in one. You can create your own hybrids and… well there is some genetic nonsense at some point in the game I think. But the scientists in there were cool and it really felt possible. Not realistic, but possible. Anyways, I spent enough time on it mixing animals and it made me learn some of their names and living areas, and a tiny teeny bit of genetics. So all those hours fighting an AI were not lost, you see.
In the end, there are probably other influential pieces and indeed some professors back in my high school days (well at least one) and university days alike. I do think my love for explorers, archaeologists and people with a white lab coat doing questionable experiments lead me here. Am I happy I ditched the piece of advice I was given by all PhD students I met before I started my PhD? Yes I am. What piece of advice was it? “Don’t do a PhD”.