Talented school student programmes alumnus Victor Kang shares an infographic on his career to date and his 'seven life lessons' for future young scientists.
I thought long and hard about what to include in this article. I had read all the previous articles on my fellow Young Achievers - stories from young scientists and engineers from around New Zealand, Australia, and the United States, who are now working in energy, agriculture, biomedical, zoology, and aeronautical science. So if you haven’t had a chance to read the other articles then I recommend that you do so before you read mine because I intend to do something slightly different!
I am a fan of infographics and so I will share my journey so far through a diagram. I will conclude with seven lessons from my life which may also be helpful to you. I am always happy to answer questions, so feel free to send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
Up until very recently in my life, I didn’t fully realise nor appreciate just how important science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are to the foundation of our world. Science is more than research done by scientists wearing lab coats in labs. If you look around your environment right now, you will notice that there has been a bus-load of science to shape your surroundings. The chips you munched on for morning tea? Scientists studied the chemicals to reproduce the smoky BBQ flavour, probed the “crunchiness” of the chip to give that nice crispy sensation, and developed complicated food manufacturing equipment that takes in raw ingredients and rolls out highly consistent thin cuts for your enjoyment. If you peel back the layers in your non-natural surrounding, you will realise how much research was poured into developing those products. The world we live in is largely shaped by the science that has already been done. The world that we will live in, or want to live in, will be determined by the science that you and other future researchers conduct. How awesome is that?
I mentioned this earlier but your school teachers and university lecturers will change your life if you find ways to engage with them. Unless you are very lucky and have extremely attentive teachers from Day 1, it will be up to you to put your interests and enthusiasm on their radars. These people have friends and networks of their own, and can share relevant opportunities with you as they hear about them. Teachers are phenomenal, but they aren’t mind-readers (fingers crossed), so be your own advocate and reach out to them.
Although this stereotype is on the decline, I still see Hollywood depict geniuses as brilliant people from the get-go, able to conjure up wonderful ideas and gadgets from their gifted brains without putting in the time. In other words, all nature, little work. It really isn't like that! After meeting many smart people from all around the world, I have yet to meet anyone who excelled or created something awesome without investing enormous time and effort into it. STEM subjects can be difficult, and research has shown there is no perfect way to learn in a classroom, but if you work hard, one of two things will happen: either you will grasp the concepts and excel, or your teacher will recognise your efforts, and will help you reach your goal. It’s a win-win scenario, but only if you dedicate yourself to the cause and put in the hours. (This doesn’t mean mindlessly wasting time on a homework problem! Work smart, not just hard).
STEM encompasses many different job sectors; if you read through all the other Young Achievers’ profiles, you will get a sense of how diverse your future options are with a STEM degree. But something that I didn’t realise until I was half-way through university is that a STEM degree opens up careers outside of the traditional science-related job sectors. Many non-scientific recruiters and companies understand that a STEM education teaches you to think critically, analytically, and to dissect and solve problems.
Immediately after graduating, I got a job doing something that I had never done before at a pharmaceutical consulting company (Box I). I did not know how to make financial or accounting models, nor could I name the most recent drug approvals in cancer treatment. But my years as a science student taught me the framework to methodically search for and learn what was needed. That job gave me insights into how multi-billion dollar companies operated, and how life-saving treatments were conceived, developed, launched, and maintained. STEM degrees are highly versatile, and will open up many opportunities for your career.
I remember hearing in intermediate school that one of my friend’s parent was an entomologist. I guess I was too young to have thought “Oh, that’s what I want to do for a living, and I should contact this guy." My parents were dealing with a host of challenges that came with being immigrants in a completely different culture, so couldn’t act on this information. This is not a regret, but I sometimes wonder how my journey would have been different had I made that connection (by coincidence, I ended up doing a research internship in that entomologist’s lab almost a decade later). Seek out someone who is working in the general subject area that you are interested in so you can gain first-hand exposure. How do you do this? Again, your teachers and lecturers are a great place to start, as they will likely have friends and family working in different job sectors from around the world.
As a science student, you may feel like you’re just taking science-oriented classes: from chemistry, biology, and physics NCEA subjects to uni-level courses with similar topics. You may become comfortable studying within this familiar terrain, meeting similar people also studying the sciences. I have had really interesting discussions and debates with friends studying or working in completely different fields, from art history to global development, investment banking, and start-ups. In my PhD studies, I spend more time absorbed in a niche slice of a specific scientific topic, and I’ve realised that I risk becoming pigeon-holed, only being able to enjoy talking with fellow researchers in my field. To avoid this, I actively broaden my horizons, intellectually and socially, by interacting with friends in various jobs, reading widely, and attending guest seminars outside of my department. Not only does that lead to interesting conversations, but it also means I have friends with diverse backgrounds should I ever need to pursue a different career path.
Hobbies are important! Sometimes, hobbies may help you realise your career path. Extra-curricular activities were a significant part of education at my university. Some of my peers working in the student-run print newspaper were pouring 30-plus hours a week into an extracurricular activity because they found a passion. Those peers are now working in some of the most renowned news magazines in the world. More often than not, however, hobbies will remain something on the side that helps you relax, be active, or be creative. All those mental and physical states are important, and may even help you view a specific scientific problem from a different angle.
I hope you found these points relevant and helpful. I wanted to share my experiences as a young scientist and also to provide something useful to other young future scientists. Again, feel free to reach out with questions about any of the seven points or my journey so far in the sciences. Good luck!