Building A Scientific Cathedral

by Lorien E. Menhennett

cathedralA woman came across three men working at a construction site. She asked the first man what he was doing. He replied, “I’m making bricks.” She then asked the second man the same question. His reply was, “I’m making a wall.” When she came to the third man and repeated her question, he said, “I’m building a cathedral.”

Clearly, all three of these men were doing the same thing. But they had different attitudes, different visions, and a different sense of pride, about their work.

stone wallSo why am I telling this story? I think that there is a parallel to basic science work here (and I’m not talking about the chemical reactions involved in solidifying bricks and mortar). Like bricklaying, basic science involves a great deal of “manual” labor, which is sometimes repetitive and tedious. If that’s all you see about science, though, you’re not going to be very satisfied doing it – much like that first bricklayer. If you can make some connections, put the work in context, see it as the second bricklayer did – that you’re creating a wall – then it will be somewhat more fulfilling. But if you can continue to do your work while maintaining the sense that you are a part of something greater, that every discovery is built upon the work of so many other people, that you are constructing a “cathedral” of sorts along with other scientists, then the discipline becomes so much more.

I’m not going to lie. That repetitive work? I know that in my future as a physician-scientist, I may not always feel like doing it, or find it “fun.” But there will be a point to it, a greater goal, both within the context of my own particular research and within the larger context of science. And I find that thrilling.

Like the greatest cathedrals, our body of scientific knowledge has been built brick-by-brick. I look forward to laying a few of my own someday.