The Real Poop
What’s not to like about a job that lets you do worthy things like helping your fellow human beings live longer, healthier and – maybe, just maybe – happier lives? Think of what your job objectives could be: curing cancer; creating new vaccines; stamping out an invasion of vermin like bed bugs.
If that’s the kind of job you could live with, sign up to be a scientist at the National Institutes of Health, aka the NIH.
The NIH’s mission is to improve public health, pure and simple. As one of the country’s leading biomedical research centers, it does that in three different ways. The NIH funds research projects all over the country at academic and medical institutions, it conducts biomedical research, and it trains a bumper crop of the world’s research scientists. The NIH has been around in one form or another since 1887, when the Marine Hospital Service set up a one-room laboratory and then, as they say, the rest is history.
But “NIH scientist” means a lot of things. There are geneticists, neuroscientists, molecular biologists, immunologists and oodles of other “ologists” all over the place at the NIH. It is home to the huddled masses of brainiacs, doing research all over the place on all sorts of – we hope – weighty, important health-science-y things.
NIH has a grab bag of jobs, too. You've got your principal investigators, staff scientists and techs. And because NIH also trains up-and-coming research scientists, bunches of trainees are at the ready, eager to use the lab as their own personal dojo, honing their ninja scientific research skills.
But who are the actual worker bees staffing research projects? Yes, programs do exist for high school students and college grads to get their learning on, but postdoctoral fellows are the research drones who get the job done. They’re the folks who have sheepskins with the letters “Ph.D.” on them and are still training to become more independent so they can run their own labs one day. Think of them as human works in progress, who tend to indulge in nerd chic – you know, the thick glasses, pocket protectors and other geeky clichés.
The NIH is divided into 27 institutes, or centers, each with its own research goals and its own acronym. (Hint: The only thing scientists love more than white lab coats is the acronym – like NIA, which stands for National Institute on Aging. Or how about NCATS,¬ not MCATS, ¬ the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences? You get the idea. ) And NIH scientists are looking for the answers to the weighty questions, like looking for the diseases Great Aunt Madge might have – cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s, to name a few. Or they may be investigating the biology behind aging and dying cells, since getting a glimpse of what things go wrong microscopically could help us treat some of the diseases that cause problems in actual people.
NIH scientists do – what else? – scientific experiments. Their workdays will, ideally, start and end in a laboratory, where they will spend hour after hour at a lab bench, labeling tubes, heating liquids until they bubble, hiss and dissipate into the stale air, and gaze into a state-of-the-art microscope to find cells that are being attacked by cancer or some other dread disease.
Besides conducting all these technical science experiments, scientists at the NIH spend a good bit of time analyzing all the data they’re collecting, trying to figure out what it all means. They could be counting cells that were labeled with a particular dye, determining whether one black blob is darker than the next black blob, or figuring out ways to get their zebra fish colony to breed better. Tip: Some romantic Barry White will usually do the trick.
Because the NIH is also a training facility, lectures and scientific talks are also its stock-in-trade. It’s part of that whole learning process; it’s where science minions learn about the new cloning techniques or about original drugs that stop DNA replication dead, or that Ebola has finally been cured – in lab rats. And chances are that these scientists will give their own talks about their research, trying to convince others about how awesome their data is, too. You might want to wear a hard hat around campus, what with all the knowledge being dropped everywhere.
And if your experiments work, and your results end up being awesome, you’ll get to write those results up in a paper. There are pretty figures to make and word limits to keep. Good writing skills are certainly desired in this field, since success is based on how much you publish. You don’t need to be Ernest Hemingway, but it helps if you can actually spell “Ernest Hemingway,” or at least “Linus Pauling.”
And then there are the meetings. There are lots of them. There are meetings within the NIH where you’ll discuss your recent results, or the fact that your experiments are working – or not. There are also national and international meetings to attend, where scientists will meet with others in the field to get a sense of where the field is heading, and what other cool research people are doing.