What do you want to be when you grow up?

David Ng is asking if biologists have physics envy, which is both a common and a peculiar question (short answer: no, physicists should have biology envy). Then he follows up with a few brief questions to determine if scientists are actually pining away, wishing they’d gone into some different field … and here are my answers.

1. What’s your current scientific specialty?

Developmental biology.

2. Were you originally pursuing a different academic course? If so, what was it?

I started my undergraduate career with a general interest in marine biology, but quickly focused on neurobiology and development as more interesting problems (but not more interesting environments or organisms!) I went into graduate school thinking neuroscience was the bee’s knees, but again shifted focus to more development — starting from a developmental perspective was the practical way to approach the complexity of the nervous system. Now I also think it is the practical way to approach the complexity of metazoan evolution. Actually, I’m with D’Arcy Thompson that “everything is the way it is because it got that way” and that development is the lens we should use to examine everything. The process is all.

3. Do you happen to wish you were involved in another scientific field? If so, what one?

Yes, all of them.

Well, all of the biological disciplines, anyway. The problem is that I tend to think of mathematics, physics, and chemistry as subsets of biology, so they all tend to get sucked into my domain of desired knowledge.

On the other hand, maybe my answer should be “no.” My interests are my interests, and I’m currently free to pursue them exactly as I will, so I can’t quite imagine changing who I am. If I were to switch to another scientific field it would only be because I saw it as a useful tool to better understand the process of development.

Go ahead, everyone, answer the questions yourselves. If you aren’t a scientist, you can still always answer questions 2 and 3 (hint: the correct answer to #3 will always be some variant of evo-devo. Different answers will be marked down accordingly.)


  1. Bobryuu says

    1. I’m currently studying physics (and the fine arts).

    2. My varied majors go as follows: Japanese Studies, Italian, English, Fine Arts, and Physics. I probably would have been either a Latin or Classics or Linguistics major if my school had those fields.

    3. I would love to be a biology person, specifically the field of exosociobiology, though I imagine that there is little demand for that.

  2. Cappy says

    Ecology is applied Biology.
    Biology is applied Chemistry.
    Chemistry is applied Physics.

  3. says

    1. Studying general biology

    2. Yes. No… no. or… well… I wasn’t pursuing anything really. See #3

    3. Like PZ, yes. All of the biological sciences. I’ve considered being just about everything. Marine biologist, botanist, zoologist, entomologist, parasitologist, microbiologist, neurologist, evolutionary biologist, and yes, even developmental biologist among others. As for other fields of science, I also have an interest in astronomy, physics, psychology, chemistry, geology, paleontology….

  4. TheJerrylander says

    1. Just finished my MSc in Computer Science, in Grad School from Sept. to get the PhD. Specialization is linguistics (mostly natural language processing) and SoftComputing (mainly Neural Networks and Evolutionary Alogrithms)

    2. I started out as a Archaeology major…

    3. I wish I could become a true polymath, so, yes, I’d take everything I could get my hands on, academically speaking. But I am pretty happy with CS, as you can branch off into almost anything—the advantages of a “support” science

  5. says

    2)I started out thinking Chemical Engineering sounded cool, but switched to electrical engineering for my BS and got my masters in Agricultural Engineering, doing process modeling and process control work for food extrusion.
    3)It would be cool to do computer modeling of biological systems (specifically evo/devo :)

  6. J Daley says

    1. General Biology (undergrad). Will do grad work in Avian Ecology.
    2. Linguistics.
    3. Backup dancer for Prince.

  7. says

    1. Chemical informatics / materials science.
    2. Thanks to my university’s unique undergrad course (Natural Sciences), yes; originally I wanted to study chemistry, then drifted into mineral sciences/mineralogy (for my undergrad and PhD, which was mostly solid-state physics), and now find myself back in a chemistry department.
    3. I wish I knew more of everything, but if I’m going to be a scientist at all, this is the niche I want to be in. If anyone needs someone to play guitar/laptop in their band, though…

  8. Fernando Magyar says

    I second #2’s comment but from the bottom up.
    Language and logic to learn Mathematics.
    Mathematics to understand Physics.
    Physics to understand chemistry.
    Chemistry to understand Biology.
    Biology to understand the meaning of life.
    Ducks to avoid being pelted by rotten tomatoes.

  9. arachnophilia says

    i’m actually a fine arts majors, but i’ve been known to take a science class or two for fun. this last semester, i took an intro paleontology course, which is apparently the bane of the geology department. all the rock-jocks hate it, and tend to take it at least twice. it’s the biology end that screws them up, i guess. i took it without the two years biology and two years geology pre-reqs.

    after bombing the first test (75% of it seemed to be about the lecture given the one day i was too sick to come to class), i batted the next two far enough out of the park to convince the prof not only to give me an A- for the class, but to continually tell me that i was in the wrong field.


    1: n/a, not a scientist.
    2: yes, and still am. but,
    3: if i was doing something else, there’s a fair chance it would be some subset of paleontology.

  10. Doug says

    1. Law, which is not science at all. Not by any acceptable definition of science, anyway. And don’t let anyone try to convince you a J.D. is anything but a non-thesis M.A. or that Esq. after a name means anything in the U.S. (other than, “hello, I’m arrogant”).

    2. Biochemistry. I bailed after getting an M.S.

    3. Statistics. Someday (hello pipe dream) I’ll go back to school and get a Ph.D. in stats.

  11. says

    I think these questions were built for me. Also, a wonderful opportunity to plug my new blog!

    1. Human motor control and neuroscience.

    2. My undergraduate degree was in physics, though I’ve always been interested in evolutionary biology. Towards the end of my undergrad I found myself more interested in psychology and got myself on to a PhD in motor neuroscience.

    3. Um… does wanting to be more heavily involved in robotics count as evo-devo? I mean, you could think of design as a kind of evolutionary process (in fact, my friend Febble has expounded this very line of reasoning and got summarily banned from UD for doing so… shock). I think there is great scope for applying our knowledge of the human motor system, particularly in the area of predictive control, to robotic movements.

    So it looks like this particular physicist does have biology envy, to a point!

  12. SteveF says

    1) Doing a PhD in Quaternary palaeoecology and palaeoclimatology (with a bit of Palaeolithic archaeology on the side)

    2) Not really. Started off a little more trad geology, but still in the earth sciences.

    3) I’d like to try crazy, high-end astrophysics and cosmology. Not clever enough though. Plus I enjoy what I’m doing a great deal.

  13. says

    I admit, I have a bad case of physics envy. I hope that one day I can go back to school and pick up many, many more physics classes. I have no desire to do science professionally anymore, but I really love to learn about the way things work.

    (From a sci-fi illustrator whose previous scientific specialty was plant physiology)

  14. Rheinhard says

    Some biologists have physics envy because physics has miles-wide millon-volt particle accelerators, magnetically confined nuclear fusion, lasers, quantum metaphysics which makes you sound really deep at parties (at least the ones respectable physicists can get invited to), million-Solar-mass Black Holes, plus a large number of very nice explosions.

    Physicists have biology envy because biology has, well, sex.

  15. jeccat says

    1) My grad work was in cancer biology, I did a postdoc in parasitology/infectious disease, and I am currently working in drug development.
    2) My science love has always been focused on cells and proteins. In 9th grade I got all swoony when we learned about salivary amylase (it starts digesting your food right in your mouth!) So cancer biology was a logical destination, with its focus on cell signaling and regulation of apoptosis, mitosis, all that cool stuff. I think I’d been heading to this field from the minute I learned to ask questions.
    3) Now that I am in drug development, I wish, wish WISH I had taken chemistry more seriously. I loved organic chem in college, and I had a chance to take chem major chemistry rather than bio major chemistry, but I didn’t because I didn’t want to have to fit in the longer lab. I regret it now. If I could figure out a way to go back and learn some real chemistry, I would.

  16. David says

    Well, I just went through this with PZ on his Seattle trip, but at the risk of boring repetition:

    1) Not a scientist, more of a software engineer (despite the argument in the last Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery that computer science is a natural science).

    2) Started out as a biologically oriented applied mathematics student, ended up in computer science with my senior thesis and research in a marine ecology/biology laboratory. Took o-chem, p-chem, physics, genetics, evolution, plant physiology, etc.. I was bad at benchwork, though.

    3) I really would like to know how the brain works, but I’m now pursuing a degree in philosophy with some phil. of mind/cog. sci./phi. science components.

    I really can’t afford to become a scientist at my age; the whole Ph.D., post-doc, tenure-track route would be hard to start in my late forties, with two kids, so I’m going to just have to stay a science groupie/fanboy/hobbyist/stalker.

  17. says

    1. Not a scientist. I have my Masters in English Lit and a second degree in education.

    2. I started out in the 70’s as an astrophysics major. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t stand up to a certain Nuclear Physics PhD who was (unfortunately) advising me at that time. He felt women should bake brownies. When I caught pneumonia and missed half a semester, I caved in and dropped out. It ticks me off to this day that I did what I was expected to do rather than what I wanted to do.

    3. Yes. I’m rather fascinated with nudibranchs, and am thinking of going back and picking up another degree, this time in Marine Biology. Not that I could actually DO anything with it, but for me it’s learning for learning’s sake.

  18. Katie says

    1. Virology
    2. Not really. I never really considered majoring in anything other than biology in undergrad (I wish I had now). I am now in a narrowly focused graduate program, which also was a mistake.
    3. Right now I wish I was involved in any field at all as long as it’s not science. Any kind of science. Does graduate school do this to everybody? Probably not, eh?

  19. N.Wells says

    1) Sedimentary geology
    2) Majored in both geology and biology
    3) No but biology (and to a slightly lesser degree sciences in general) still also fascinates me.

    One of the really cool things about geology is that it permits / requires one to get involved in other sciences all the time (inorganic geochemistry; organic chemistry in coal, oil & paleontology; biology/paleontology; microbiology in ore deposits and parts of diagenesis; geophysics; mathematical geology; primate paleontology; planetary geology; etc., etc., etc.).

  20. says

    1. Physics of what people call, vaguely, “complex systems.”
    2. Not really: everything I’ve studied in physics so far is, at least partially, applicable within the (vague) boundaries of “complex systems.” I mean, I’m currently working on an unexpected use of supersymmetry with possible applications to genetics.
    3. I’m happy enough where I am, because it tends to take me everywhere.

  21. Stephen Wells says

    1) Mineral physics and biophysics.

    2) Physics, then earth sciences.

    3) What PZ said.

  22. says

    Well, David Ng notwithstanding, my BSc is in physics, and if I go for a masters there is a high probability I will take a stab at something related to marine biology… Right now the main barrier to pursuing it is laziness.

    I just don’t have enough slime and tentacles in my life.

    Although I’m not sure there’s a biology equivalent to physics experiments like “create/destroy matter” by firing gamma rays into a bubble chamber to see them convert to positron/electron pairs and then annihilate back into a gamma ray. It’s not quite that simple, but still one of the cooler things you can do in undergrad physics.

  23. says

    What is this, Facebook all of a sudden? (“Hey, are you on MyPharyngula?” “No, that’s for kids. I have a profile on PharyngulaBook, though.”)

    Fine, I’ll play too.

    1. Medical geography and disease surveillance (I’m not really any sort of a specialist, but I play one at work.)

    2. Anthropology and political science, then geology/meteorology and biology. What can I say? I’m a Renaissance Man (in other words: dilettante).

    3. I like it all, all science, everywhere, all the time. The social sciences too. And music! Yeah, gimme a little bit of everything! Once I’ve mastered all human knowledge, I figure I’ll be able to lift my X-Wing out of the muck with my mind. Then, when I grow up, I’m gonna be a firetruck and marry Wonderwoman.

  24. SteveF says

    One of the really cool things about geology is that it permits / requires one to get involved in other sciences all the time

    Which is why Quaternary geology is even more interesting; it lets you get to reconstruct things in greater detail!

  25. Nomen Nescio says

    1. i’m not a scientist at all, i’m a professional computer programmer writing some very boring kinds of code. unfortunately, on all those points spare the “professional programmer” one.

    2. ages ago, i began studying applied chemistry. never got past freshman level. (applied chemistry, of course, is what evo-devo builds itself out of, natch.)

      i transitioned to general computer tech because that’s where all my limited talents were and are.

      nowadays i’m trying (and arguably failing) to follow two forks in the road at once; to get more advanced in the theoretical, computer-sciencey side of programming, in order to write less boring code, and to improve my people skills / interpersonal communication skills / general business knowledge in order to better solve real people’s actual problems with those boring programs i can write.

      (i’m not sure what business programming has to do with evo-devo, actually. unless you use it to help write prospective budgets for your grant proposals, maybe.)

    3. all of them. especially math, computer science, and a variety of communications-related fields. (i might have enough brains for the last; almost certainly not for any serious efforts in the first two. unfortunately.)

      i’ve got this pet project for how to combine the two branches, by writing laws and general legalese in macro-expansion languages. seriously, much of the most boring and repetitive English used in law reads like the output of a recursive-descent expander of some sort; why not collapse that parse tree symbolically, back to its most compact form? i’m convinced this would improve the world, if only i could convince all the relevant suit-wearers to study the use and application of m4 or some similar package.

  26. says

    1. Physics and Computer Science is my degree although I work primarily in the computer security field… applied computer science.

    2. Yes: Electrical Engineering.

    3. Marine Biology. Originally I didn’t pursue it because it did not appear to meet my requirement that my first academic endeavours lead somewhere lucrative. However, I’m older now and don’t need as much lucre, preferring something interesting. Astronomy / Astrophysics might sometimes occupy this spot, depending on my mood.

  27. other bill says

    1. Biostatistics
    2. Mathematics and Biology double major -> medical reseach
    3. What PZ said + experimental psychology

  28. ctenotrish, FCD says

    1. Medical and molecular genetics with a focus on cytogenetics (whole chromosomes vs. individual genes)
    2. Yes! Went to college to study nuclear engineering. Took a dive class on a whim, and fell in love with marine biology. Got a degree in that, and my love for all things fishy led me to evolutionary and developmental biology. My interest in the development of the fish skeleton led me to human skeletal dysplasias, and the fascinating field of medical and molecular genetics, where I am happily sitting now.
    3a. No – I love what I do now (human genetics) and I still have an awesome hobby where I know my stuff (marine bio.).
    3b. Yes – if I had all the free time in the world, I would love to immerse myself in paleontology and (not literally) microbiology. Fossils are cool! Germs are also cool!

    Yep, basically, I am a happy science junky.

  29. CL says

    I jiggered with #1 a bit.

    1.) Law. And, insofar as one can “specialize” in law school, I’m most interested in legal history and Indian law. (I.e., Native Americans, not south Asians. The field is called Indian law rather than Native American law.)

    2.) My undergrad degree is in physics, after starting out as a history major. I spent a year or two seriously considering pursuing a PhD in atomic, molecular, and optical physics, but the time I spent working in a professor’s lab cured me of that. (I have no problems with the professor–he and I are still on fine terms–but that year and a half of lab work was good for me, since I got out before I made a serious mistake. I’m 100% sure I made the right choice about how to continue my education.)

    3.) I think astrophysics would be fascinating, but I neer had the math skills to do it beyond the advanced undergrad level. (Despite my struggles, it was my favorite physics class, though I took it after I’d already been accepted to law school.) Also, I think having Richard Dawkins’s job would be awesome. But I’m happy with my current path.

  30. Opisthokont says

    1. Evolutionary protistology. Eukaryotic phylogeny. Ultrastructural anatomy. Macroevolutionary biodiversity. I could make up more terms, but they would only get more opaque. I study the evolution and diversity of eukaryotes, surveying the whole spectrum of cell types. I look at both molecular evolution and morphology, which means that I get to sequence genes and play with electron microscopes. It is a lot of fun.

    2. It took me a while to get to where I am, but I knew that I wanted to do something like this from when I was about eight years old. I always studied animals more than anything else, up until the last four years or so, and would happily do more zoological research, but protists are both utterly fascinating and tragically understudied, and will likely be the mainstay of my research career.

    3. Sometimes. I do get physics envy on occasion. This is because I recognise that what I study is a contingent, historical science: how things happened to turn out. If we were (as Stephen Jay Gould put it) to replay the tape of life, much of the details of what I study would be invalid, and that grates on me. Physics, on the other hand, is about how things must be, given a small set of initial conditions. I like that sort of stability. That having been said, my physicist friends tell me that I am deluding myself, and that they do get biology envy.

  31. Onymous says

    1. Astrophysics specifically planetary science, more specifically looking for exoplanets.

    2. not really, used to be going for a math major as well, turns out I hate doing formal/theoretical math (still interesting though).

    3. um… particle/high energy physics, materials, rocket science, atmospheric, geo as far as branches of physics/engineering I’m interested in and would love to do some work in at some point, though atmospheric and geo both sort of fall into the need-to-know-at-least-some category as a planetary physicist.

    microbiology and evo interests me and I will at some point (probably after grad school) go and try to get at least a minor or something, for purposes of back-of-the-envelope-exobiology. honestly though once you get to the point that you can see it with the unaided eye i sort of lose interest beyond “hey that’s cool”

    if you want to call computer science a science, although it’s more of an engineering discipline, of course thats not so much an I-wish as an I-am, just not professionally.

    Chemistry-not so much. Some bits of it are useful for physics (the old saw being “if it’s more than one atom it’s chemistry”) but as a stand alone field, i’m pretty uninterested, maybe it’s because most of the chemistry i hear about is more of a “this happens” instead of “this is WHY it happens”, possibly just because i’m not in the field though.

    which is really what things come down to, I became a physicist largely because i grew up on sci-fi. I stayed a physicist because the main question i care about is why. I became a planetary physicist (which is really more of a “what” and “where” field) sort of by accident, but i do love exploration.

    On a side note as far as bio-envy goes… well maybe other physicists, but astrophysicists generally speaking think we’re better than every one else in the world.
    I suspect this has to do, primarily, with the fact that we deal with time scales, and scales in general several orders of magnitude larger than anybody else (and until recently we did it with centimeters and grams).

  32. Jen Phillips says

    1. Currently doing a postdoc that encompasses cell biology, neuroscience, human genetics, and the mighty zebrafish.
    2. Started out as a psych major in undergrad, quickly changed to biology and (over the course of the next 10 years of intermittent college attendance) drifted through several branches before falling in love with molecular evo-devo. More molecular and genetics magic came my way in grad school, now I’m happily applying all these tools to a more complex human disease model.
    3. I definitely feel like I’m in the right field. I would love to broaden my expertise further–more evo devo, of course, more computers, more basic physics and chemistry for sure, as I struggled indifferently through these the first time around, and now that I apply these principals so regularly I have developed a much greater appreciation for them. However, two extracurricular experiments in applied embryology over the past few years are continuing to make heavy demands on my time, so my hours spent in the lab are necessarily very focused. As far as as pipe dreams (in all probability) go: 3a–go to law school, become powerful public policy voice for science. 3b–get Masters in Education, become powerful science literacy proponent for elementary and secondary school systems. I love the bench, but in the long term I would love to find a route to becoming more involved in teaching and advocating science that would bypass further formal education. I suspect I can make a greater impact with this latter course that I ever will with my research, as much as I love it.

  33. Ken C. says

    1. Theoretical computer science, mostly algorithms. (Not a science, exactly, but not an “engineering discipline”, either.)

    2. Went to graduate school to do artificial intelligence. Found out it was mostly bullshit (then, anyway).

    3. Would like to be more of a mathematician, but I’d have to be smarter, almost as smart as physicists think they are.

  34. says

    1. Human Motor Control/Adaptation and Rehabilitation Robotics

    2. My undergrad degree was in Computer Engineering. I jumped ship and dove into Biomechanics and Robotics for my Masters.

    3. There are times when I find my self thinking that being a theoretical physicist studying String Theory would be fun. But then the engineer in me speaks up and reminds me that I hate dealing with too much theory….practical applications are where it’s at! There are also moments when I entertain diving further into Cognitive Neuroscience.

  35. says

    CHADMAC: heh, another motor controller! Looks like you’re in the area I want to move into, and vice versa…

  36. MarcusA says

    Physicists come across as disconnected from life and reality. (My cousin, a physicist plays video games at least 4 hours a day). And when I hear Stephen Hawking say that the human race should one day prepare to move to another planet because this one is dying, I cringe with embarrassment. Physicists are prone to lapse into the realm of science fiction and fantasy.

  37. Steve Lew says

    1- Phylogenetic systematics, about 1.5-2 years shy of the PhD.
    2- I was not pursuing a course so much as capitalizing on the opportunities that presented themselves, with a guiding desire to hang out in museums and rain forests. And a million years ago I bailed on a music composition degree.
    3- I have been tempted by every field that has been presented to me by a really good instructor, most notably statistics, aquatic ecology, and organic chemistry. And I regret not being better at math, so I guess if you look at physics as applied math I have some non-zero physics envy.

  38. Michael LoPrete says

    1. AB in Religious Studies, then got my JD. Not science at all.

    2. The advice I was given as a freshman in college, since I was on the ‘pre-law’ track, was to find a discipline I found interesting where I could be certain to develop my reading, writing, and oratorical skills. Beyond that, I didn’t start college with any real idea what I wanted to study.

    3. I was a science and math nerd in high school, but I felt burnt out and thought of trying something different. What I’ve discovered during my educational career is that I’m fascinated by social interaction; had I the foresight, I probably would have studied biology and computer science and specialized in human to machine interfacing.

  39. says

    Despard: Yay motor control!! My neuroscience experience is somewhat limited to a course on plasticity and reading the likes of Ramachandran, Hawkins and LeDoux. So, I will probably stick with biomechanics, robotics and rehabilitation on the professional side of things at least until December 2009. BTW, nice work writing a blog about Shadmehr and Mussa-Ivaldi…. you don’t see that too often.

  40. says

    I started out as a biology/physics major but switched to structural engineering in 2nd year. Now I’ve got biologist envy. Sigh.

    I would have physics envy except I know my math skills aren’t up to snuff. So yeah, I wish I was doing evo-devo now. Then again, if I did switch, in a couple of years I’d get a hankering for some concrete, and want to switch back.

  41. Thomas says

    1. Astronomy and Physics, currently as an undergrad.
    2. No, have been set on Astronomy for several years.
    3. Biology has always been interesting to me along with neurological studies and many more science fields.

  42. says

    Cross-posted on my blog, but I figured I’d share here as well.

    1. What’s your current scientific specialty?
    I just finished my undergraduate degree in Cellular, Molecular, and Developmental Biology, so if that’s a specialty, then it’s mine. However, that’s a bit vague, so I’ll narrow it down by saying that I’m most interested in developmental neurobiology, and that I’m also well-versed in the niche field of hair cell death by ototoxic drug exposure. I could go on here (for days, probably) about everything I find interesting, but really, I’ll spare you. You get enough of that if you read my blog. :)

    2. Were you originally pursuing a different academic course? If so, what was it? Yes. I started my undergraduate career at Stanford studying mechanical engineering. I burned out, dropped out, went through an “I’m going to be an art major!” phase, and then rediscovered my love of science prior to enrolling and finishing my BS at UW.

    3. Do you happen to wish you were involved in another scientific field? If so, which one? Well, not exactly, but I do want to expand my knowledge base into other fields. I am probably going to apply mostly to neuroscience programs, instead of traditional cell biology or genetics programs, because I want to gain exposure to some more of the computational and physics side of things. I think it’s important to start formulating our biological questions in ways that people more trained in computational sciences can understand and contribute to, and in order to do that, I need more exposure to math, especially network theory and statistical modeling, and to physics, including quantum physics and physical chemistry.

  43. mojojo says

    1. Not a scientist, I was an English and philosophy double major, art minor, ended up with MA in comparative lit.

    2. Botany! Having taken all the science classes my high school offered I took more at local community college, only to be scared away from science altogether (like Dorid above) by a chemistry professor who thought women should not only stay home and bake brownies, but kneel and avert eyes while feeding them to men. But it’s all good; because of men like him, I learned to cuss like Shakesperean sailor!

    3. Mycology! I do so love fungi.

  44. says


    Language and logic to learn Mathematics.
    Mathematics to understand Physics.
    Physics to understand chemistry.
    Chemistry to understand Biology.

    Biology to understand neurology.
    Neurology to understand cognition.
    Cognition to understand language and logic.

    1. I’m a language teacher, so would have to say applied linguistics.
    2. BA in comparative literature, mathematics minor.
    3. Sociolinguistics. I wish math were something you could watch like a spectator, but it gets too deep too fast, and I don’t have it in me to follow those people.

  45. carey says

    1. Currently retired, but I worked primarily as a systems engineer (OS + large RDBMS + data mining) and IT director.
    2. BS astrophysics with minor in geophysics. MS mathematics.
    3. If I went back to school, I would love to study cognitive sciences (eg, neural nets, AI), which weren’t even named when I went to university.

  46. octopod says

    1. Paleontology. Vertebrate at present, but invertebrate (hopefully) in future.

    2. So I wanted to do linguistics, and then I got into Caltech and thought I wanted to do chemistry, and then I majored in geology ’cause it was awesome, and now I’m back around to what I wanted to do when I was five years old.

    3. What I really like doing is chasing down the history of ideas, and that works pretty well if the “ideas” are biological characteristics, which is why I’m in paleontology. However, I wish I had time to do this in linguistics, or musicology, or other aspects of human culture (read the Journal of the History of Ideas, or the blog of the Athanasius Kircher Society), or really anywhere. I’ll just make it my hobby too.

  47. tintenfisch says

    1. Currently a pathology resident.
    2. B.S. in microbiology/psychology, Ph.D. in molecular genetics (research concentrated on human endogenous retroviruses)and an M.D.
    3. I enjoy reading about pretty much everything. Sometimes I wish I had a better grasp of mathmatics.

  48. B-haemolytica says

    1. Molecular plant-microbe interactions (i.e. how do plants recognize bacterial invaders, and how do they mount a resistance response?

    2. I was originally a plant ecologist, studying rainforest ecophysiology (specifically, how plants compete for light in a shaded environment). While on a field expedition in Australia, however, I got infected with 300+ ticks, mainly on my ass and genitals. I haven’t been in the field since…

    3. Sorry PZ, but I do have physics envy, thanks primarily to Carl Sagan. If I could do it all over again, I would study astronomy. Unfortunately, I royally suck at math. I would NOT, however, give up my current level of expertise in biology.

  49. Stephen Wells says

    Is MarcusA (comment 38) a really, really specialised concern troll?

  50. HP says

    1. Not a scientist. I currently work as a technical writer, primarily documenting Finite Element Analysis (FEA) software.

    2. Music. Majored in Jazz Studies and minored in Trumpet and Music Composition. Did about a year in Grad School majoring in Music Composition. I still perform regularly, and occasionally teach informally ungrateful little bastards who won’t listen.

    3. I’m rather fascinated by Acoustics (see above), which is a branch of Physics, no? Years ago, I wrote the documentation for a high-end acoustic engineering software package, and couldn’t get enough of it. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m disciplined enough to get through the years of gruntwork I’d need to put in before I could get to the fun stuff. Psychoacoustics is great, and I’d love to do basic research with infrasound (there’s a whole lot of woo attached to infrasound, but not much solid info, AFAICT).

  51. says

    1. Not a scientist. First degree: Bachelor of Music in Performance. Soon-to-be second degree: Masters of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (I know I’ll get blasted for that around here!)
    2. See above…
    3. If I was involved in a scientific field it would probably be anthropology.

  52. says

    1. Ecology
    2. Biochemistry
    3. Ethnobotany or archaeology or philosophy of science or quantitative genetics, or evo-devo, of course, but from a plant perspective (or history, but that probably wouldn’t count as “another scientific field”).

  53. poke says

    1. Biochemistry.

    2. Not really.

    3. I find every area of science interesting but that doesn’t mean I’d want to work in them. Particle physics is fascinating but particle accelerators are probably less fun than they sound. Real scientists wear lab coats and spill things. I’d like to do something with field work though. Maybe Marine Biology or – the king of the sciences – Geology.

  54. poke says

    While on a field expedition in Australia, however, I got infected with 300+ ticks, mainly on my ass and genitals.

    I take back my answer to question 3.

  55. says

    1. Aerospace engineer, so not exactly a scientist. But it is R&D, researching something called a slowed rotor/compound concept. So at least I’m studying an unknown flight regime and trying to figure out what’s going on.

    2. All my notes in school from middle school & high school had airplanes sketched in the margins. Now, somebody actually pays me to draw them on big pieces of paper. So no, I never thought seriously of doing anything else. Although I did question a little bit whether I wanted to go more the aero track or the space track, but aerodynamics is just so damn cool.

    3. Yes – all of them, and not just limited to biology. Unfortunately, life is too short, so if I had to prioritize – anything to do with flying or swimming creatures, linguistics, optics & perception, archaeology, paleontology, and then the other sciences.

  56. MGrant says

    1. No science here. I’m a creative writing major. I am taking a few applied biology courses, though (environmental science, water toxicology, and whatnot). None of them are that intensive, since they are for non-majors, but I’ve had a few very pleasant chats with my professors to sate my thirst for more depth.

    2. Many years previous to my enrollment in college I wanted to be a chemist, because I had been duped by the media’s representation of chemistry as important-looking guys in lab coats mixing chemicals that came in fluorescent colors. After doing a few titration labs in my advanced high school chemistry courses, before failing the course spectacularly, I decided against this course.

    Shortly after enrolling in college and taking a few courses, I considered going into a humanities field, and honestly that’s still on the table.

    3. I’d love to be a gifted mind in the field of biology, but I’m happy for now as an interested spectator.

  57. Scotty B says

    1) Biotechnology

    2) Management: Business Administration

    3) Evolutionary Developmental Plant Psychology. No, just kidding, I do like plants though.

  58. says

    While on a field expedition in Australia, however, I got infected with 300+ ticks, mainly on my ass and genitals.

    Ah, the part of field work that the catalogs *don’t* play up.

    One guy I know refers to himself in the royal “we” whenever he returns from the field, until his anti-worm medication runs its course. He loads up his plate at potlucks, explaining that he’s “eating for thousands now”.

    Back on-topic:

    1. Biomedical informatics; specifically, knowledge representation in baasic science (comparative anatomy, conservation biology), public health (refugee health, infectious disease), and clinical (pediatric) medicine.

    2. I had a checkered academic past; I was good at science, as well as a math geek (4 years on high school math team). However, I rebelled against being pushed into medical school and classics by studying German, Tibetan, Cambodian, and Navajo. (As my friend Donna says, rolling her eyes, “*Some* of us rebelled by dropping out,” but we all do what we can.) Moved to Seattle, turned my languages into a career at Microsoft, went to massage school, burned out on software and returned to grad school, where I learned of the existence of a new-ish field, biomedical informatics. It was love at first sight.

    3. Modulo a very bad case of “too much is never enough” in all aspects of my life, not so much, really–because my work is building bridges between diverse disciplines that I get to participate in. Tracing the natural history of ursine reproduction through Pap techniques, designing data tools for reconstructive craniofacial surgery, developing a representation for nuanced details of comparative anatomy, teaching the informatics of infectious disease–all of these are part of my daily life because of going back to grad school.

    If pressed, I’d have to say I wish I’d gotten around to more abstract math, but I’m basically extremely happy where I am. Still, although my plate is full at present, I love to hear other people tell me about their areas, as well.

  59. The Physicist says

    1) My moniker says it all
    2) never considered anything else
    3) Gravitational Theory, I believe gravity is the key that will open the door to the universe.

  60. j.t.delaney says

    1.Chemistry/Materials Science, with a focus on biomaterials.

    2.I started out as an undergrad in chemical engineering, but I discovered organic synthesis (i.e. “Legos for big kids”), and that was that. In my short stint in industry, analytical organic chemistry became my specialty, in particular as related to polymers and biomaterials.

    Chemistry: the central science.

    3. Yes, we’d all like to be polymaths, and so saying “well, I’d like to study ALL the sciences” is a cheap cop-out to a real answer. Things turned out pretty good for me following the trajectory I did, but I guess I would go with botany or linguistics. Botany was always my first true love, and I still hope that things will bring me back to her along the way.

    Linguistics is something that has turned out to be a real practical skill that I’m learning autodidactically, having lived in a couple different countries in continental Europe. I’ve gotten a couple foreign languages under my belt now, but I would love to devote more time to learning how to learn more languages, and understand how these skills are put together in the brain.

  61. says

    1)I’m an accountant.

    2)Well…I started out in geophysics for a year, then decided I’d had enough math and switched to criminal justice for a year to become a lawyer. Liked my sociology classes so I switched to that. Then, midway through my senior year I realized I could graduate with a degree in psychology so I did that. Not the most practical degree, so I thought I’d try computer science. I hated programming and read Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, so I did a biology BS in 9 months. Biotech lab work is not my cup of tea, so I went into the accounting field. Three hours of my 206 undergraduate hours are in accounting, so yeah, it wasn’t my first choice. Oh, and I joined the Army during my sophomore year of college, but I tore my shoulder to pieces before I had the chance to realize the stupidity of that decision.

    3)No, not really. I’m all about making money right now, though I plan to help fund certain research projects in the future. I just don’t want to do them.

  62. says

    1. My graduate research is in physical chemistry, with a smattering of atmospheric chemistry.

    2. My undergrad degree was in chemistry with an emphasis in biochemistry, and I worked at a biotech company for a year before grad school, so I guess I was pursuing that.

    3. Developmental biology actually does seem interesting, so I guess I’ll go with that. I try not to think about things other than my thesis topic, though, because it just gets too depressing. Must…focus…on…dissertation!

  63. Christian Burnham says

    1) Physical Chemistry

    2) Physics

    3) Nope. We physical chemists are clearly the most interesting, smartest and best looking people in the world.

    I do suffer from biology-grant envy.

  64. Becca says

    1. I’m a PhD student in “Molecular Medicine” whatever that is. My research involves both biophysics and parasitology (and probably some drug development soon)
    2. Many years ago, art. More recently- I did a bit of stem-cell work with planaria; bacterial toxins; cancer biology; molecular epidemiology.
    3. Where to start? Linguistics; physics (particularly particle physics); mathematics (particularly statistics, topology; and whatever branch gets to things like fractals); chemistry (particularly organic/biochemistry); Evo-Devo of course; political science/activism; law; epidemiology and public health; architecture; painting; theater; marine biology; neuroscience…

    I have a total case of physics envy- so much so that I got involved in physics-y biology. I had assumed I would hate physics and find it impossibly difficult due to the math and when I actual took intro physics it was great. It made math “click” in a way it never had before.

  65. says

    1. What’s your current scientific specialty?

    As I am only an undergraduate (a sophomore at that), I don’t know if I can technically have a “specialty” yet. I am double majoring in Genetics and Evolutionary Biology, so I guess that would be my focus.

    2. Were you originally pursuing a different academic course? If so, what was it?

    I originally just signed up for Genetic biology, but I slowly realized that my real passion was for evolution. But before I decided on biology, I was contemplating majoring in art. Yep, sort of random. I love both biology and art equally, so I went with the one with a slightly higher chance of actually getting paid.

    3. Do you happen to wish you were involved in another scientific field? If so, what one?

    No, not really. I find that the other scientific fields are just…well, boring. They seem so sterile and lifeless (which I guess makes sense, since biology is *about* life…real profound statement there). They are also more math heavy, and while I can do math, I just don’t enjoy it. I think biology allows a person to use a lot more creativity in their thinking.

  66. KiwiInOz says

    1) Ecology (prefixes: landscape, restoration, conservation, riparian, social)

    2) Veterinary Science, but discovered beer and women and found 8am lectures too onerous after the previous discoveries. Went from an undergraduate C student in Zoology to an A+ postgrad in restoration ecology (MSc) and conservation ecology (PhD).

    3) Astronomer, palaeontologist.

  67. says

    1. N/A. Unfortunately not a scientist by profession, although i might pursue a Ph.D. in psychology some day.

    2. Was very close to choosing a career in any of my childhood dreams, evolutionary biology or paleontology, instead of psychology /cognitive-behavioral therapy. Settled for the “safer”, more profitable alternative.

    3. Doing resarch on Eocene or Oligocene megafauna. *sigh* At times I wish I had chosen differently…

  68. efp says

    1. What’s your current scientific specialty?

    Physics. Specifically, computational/statistical physics (the “complex systems” end, though I don’t like the term) and nuclear engineering.

    2. Were you originally pursuing a different academic course? If so, what was it?

    It was always physics, though I was originally heading in the particle astrophysics/cosmology direction. I kind of wish i stuck with it, but I was deflected into another field by mundane circumstances (who was hiring).

    3. Do you happen to wish you were involved in another scientific field? If so, what one?

    I’ll admit it. I have biology envy. evo/devo in particular. That and cognitive science. All the best problems in physics are either solved or lacking the data to solve them. Theory has gotten way to far ahead of the data.

  69. says

    1) Physicist, specializing in Chemical and Materials Physics. My training is in physics but my interest is on how things work on the nanometer scale and on surfaces so I’ve had quite a bit of interdisciplinary training.

    2) I started out waffling between physics and physical anthropology. One of my anthro honors professors showed a very effective recruiting slideshow of him and students at a dig, where everyone was lying on their backs and drinking beers in an exotic location. However, my physics professor trumped that by hiring me to work in his lab. I figured jobs would be a lot harder to come by in anthropology.

    3) I’m interested in most other kinds of physics, from astro to string theory. I’m interested in molecular biology, but more from a physicists point of view – I’d like to learn how and why things work rather than just classify them. And one of the reasons I read this blog is that I have more than a passing interest in marine biology, especially cephalopods. Pharyngula gives me my fix.

    It’s true that we physicists talk about the physics envy concept, but I believe mathematicians and philosophers say the same things about us…

  70. slang says

    1) information technology but I don’t think I qualify as scientist

    2) no

    3) I’d love to do something useful in astronomy. Or geology. Or math. Or physics. Several years ago I became interest in that weird ‘controversy’ that seemed to be going on in the USA (I’m in the Netherlands) about evolution, and that got me very interested in biology again. But I also gained a sense of how well all disciplines of science fit together, and how much interesting and exciting science there is out there. So to name just one area I’d rather be active in… difficult.

  71. says

    1) No scientific training other than the swell physical anthropology, human evolution and skeletal biology classes I took for my B.A. in medieval history and archaeology.

    2) Creative writing. Looked like it was going to pan out to be even less useful than what I ended up studying (which, since it was an independent major, taught me lots and lots about the joys of research), and I had no interest in spending six years writing MFA fiction, so I dumped it.

    3) I don’t know that I wish I’d necessarily gone into a specific scientific discipline, but I’d love to have taken some of the classes necessary to get into a good science communication program. I want to be a science writer when I grow up, though I must admit my interests are much more focused on biology (esp. of the evolutionary sort) and archaeology/anthropology than on physics, chemistry or engineering.

  72. sil-chan says

    1) Undergrad (I.E. being trounced by the science professors) :-p
    2) Yes, Mathematics.
    3) All of them. And I do mean all of them. Make me a Water (in the marvel sense) and I’ll be happy:-p

  73. says

    Bobryuu: How many courses are required for a major at your school?


    1: Not a scientist, though I do have an MS in Logic and Computation.
    2: Since I’ve recently been hired in computing, this is related to half my interests; the other half is philosophy. (And, of course, the third “half” is the intersection).
    3: If I could have the knowledge transplanted? Cosmology, or maybe some branch of pure mathematics (category theory, perhaps). Some days I’d say cognitive neuroscience. If the question is what I’d want to study if I had to do that to learn it, it would probably be the latter, but I would have to do it REALLY slowly.

  74. Kseniya says

    1. One of those “soft” sciences
    2. Physics
    3. Evo-devo intrigues me, I admit it! And paleontology fascinated me when I was a kid.

  75. Jess says

    1. Developmental neurobiology and brain pathology.
    2. I was in it for neuroscience from Day 1 of my Bachelor of Science.
    3. Nothing really gets me the way neuroscience does, except maybe some areas of psychology. I enjoy collaborating with people in other research areas (e.g. pharmacology, chemistry, the physics of MRI) in order to broaden my horizons, but I can’t necessarily see myself moving completely into any of those areas. So, effectively, I like dabbling in a range of other areas with no obligation to stay.

  76. Cyrock says

    Sorry PZ, how can you think of mathematics and physics as subsets of biology? It simply isnt so. We all know its opposite. I thought you were against wishful thinking.

  77. says

    1. Mathematics of evolution and phylogeny
    2. I started in pure mathematics and drifted through computer science to what is essentially applied mathematics (biology).
    3. Another scientific field? Probably not. Another field? Possibly.

  78. John Wendt says

    People who worship physics as the highest science don’t realize that physics gets it successes by being able to pick its shots. Physicists tend to work with things like two-body systems, where interactions are simple. They ignore the messy stuff like biology. Then the philosophers call biology a “special science”, because it’s not physics…

    1. Retired software engineer.

    2. Physics originally. Got seduced by software.

    3. 40 years ago biology seemed pretty dull. If I were starting over today, it would be something like evo-devo, or computational biology. Currently taking a few courses. Embryology this fall.

  79. mothra says

    1. Ph.D. in Entomology: Systematics/ Taxonomy with minors in zoology and botany. Sooo many insects, sooo little time.

    2. I collected my first butterfly at 4 years old and never looked back.

    3. I chose not to be a professional chess player– and thereby stayed off the wellfare rolls.

  80. Cyrock says

    @John Wendt

    Of course I worship physics. It is the mother of all natural sciences. I dont know what you mean when you say that in physics simple interactions are studied…2 bodies?? Yeah, in the pre-Newton era. Physicists study FUNDAMENTAL phenomenons, because those are the basis for every other phenomenon including, like it or not, biology.

  81. proton donor says

    1. I’m studying math and linguistics.
    2. Not really. Well, when I was 3, I wanted to be a paleontologist, but that doesn’t really count.
    3. I’d like to study a) organic chemistry or b) quantum physics, but I’ve found them both to be really insanely hard.

  82. Chuck says

    1. Currently pursuing graduate work in medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology, with an emphasis in cancer biology.

    2. I had originally planned on pursuing graduate work in cell biology, but pharmacology seems more in line with my career goals.

    3. I have always had a strong interest in natural history and evolutionary biology. I sometimes wish I had pursued graduate work in evo devo or even geology. But I’m happy to be a biomedical researcher. I might try to tie together my interests in the future by studying the evolution of tryptamine receptors in the brain and their effect on the development of human consciousness.

  83. Flex says

    The 86 comments are interesting, and make me feel a little lonely. All these students and scientists, maybe the other engineers have been scared away. ;)

    For what it’s worth,

    1. I’m not a scientist, although I try to think like one.
    I’m an automotive engineer with a BSEE in computer architecture.

    2. I considered plenty of other fields, but eventually decided that since I can study any discipline I desire on my own, I might as well get a degree in something that pays moderately well.

    3. Like others above, I’d like to be a polymath. From an interest in RPG’s I started to study mythology (including theology). Which led to to anthropology. Which led to linguistics and semiotics. This led to psychology, both cogitive and developmental. Which led to economics. Which is why I’m back in school for an MBA. To go full circle, I want to understand the myths businesses operate by.

    I pledge, however, to use the knowledge I’m gaining in this MBA program for the power of good and not selfishness.


  84. greg says

    (1) Geomicrobiology (grad student)
    (2) Volcanology, but I really just wanted to watch large eruptions up close.
    (3) None. I get to go to submarine volcanoes and study the microbes and the rocks they live on and eat.

  85. JJR says

    1. What’s your current scientific specialty?

    Library Science

    2. Were you originally pursuing a different academic course? If so, what was it?

    German Studies, with emphasis on Cinema Studies

    3. Do you happen to wish you were involved in another scientific field? If so, what one?

    I was just beginning to get a handle on mathematics my senior year of college, and if I had had another 4 years to devote to it, I might have been able to do it well enough to become perhaps a Computer Engineer.

    I was also rather good at High School chemistry but was too intimidated to try it at the collegiate level, so, yeah, (sorry PZ!) I took Biology instead for my science core credit classes. I wish I had had the guts to be a Chemistry major (organic chemistry, maybe) or Chemical Engineer, I think I would’ve enjoyed it. But yeah, my math bugaboo has hindered me a lot through the years.
    Too bad, because that happy summer of 1993 I really felt as though I was finally getting a handle on math.

    I later surprised myself in my MLS curriculum by having to take a statistics course (Library Research Methods); the course completely kicked my ass during the semester and I took an “I”. I called out for all my former math tutors to help, but all of them bailed on me for one assorted reason or other. I dug in my heels, checked out all the statistics books I could get, videos, etc, from the public library and devoted days on end to nothing but trying to get statistics. It finally sunk in, and I boot-strapped my way to an A- when all was said & done. I’m amazed I had it in me, frankly.

    While I was getting my first MA, I really wished I could’ve become a Slavic Studies major instead, but they didn’t offer an MA in that subject at dear old Rice U, and still don’t. I’ve thought on again, off again about going for a PhD in Intellectual History, or sometimes I think about Law School, which i have a love-hate fascination for.

    I think it’s far too late for me to ever re-tool and pursue any scientific field requiring a heavy math emphasis.
    Too bad, because those seem to be the only relatively secure jobs that pay very well. That or Medical School.
    (or Law School if you’re willing to be somewhat ruthless).

  86. N.C. says

    1) Land development, as a civil engineer.
    2) I started college in an architecture program, then changed to civil engineering (with focuses on structural engineering and transportation design).
    3) I’d still kind of like to go back to architecture eventually, either as a structural engineer working in an architecture firm, or going to grad school and getting a master’s in architecture. Eventually, way down the road, teaching at the university level seems pretty interesting too.

  87. says

    1) Starting graduate school in sociology. Sociology is horribly mistreated as unscientific, but that’s just because not enough people treat it as a science. Humans are as natural as anything else, and the things they create should be treated as such.

    2) I just graduated with my BA in English (creative writing poetry) and my BS in Mathematics. I started out in Electrical Engineering, but I quickly came to despise it. Then I switched to English to try and start a career in cartooning. Then I had a terrible longing for science and math and added a math degree.

    Within English I quickly became entranced with language as a system. I began wonder what words are, because they certainly aren’t the paper or the pixels they’re written on.

    Within math I started seeing many possible methods of studying the properties of human groups as emergent properties of dynamic systems of tens to millions of humans collaborating and interacting.

    I took a course on ecology and evolutionary modelling, and I became hooked on the idea of diving into sociology and ‘sciencing’ it up.

    3) I guess it’s still up in the air. I’m just about to start grad school. I’m entranced by linguistics, AI and computer science, as well as the pervasive question of consciousness. Poetry, abstract algebra, and ethnographic research of local Christianity will long be a hobby of mine. We’ll see how it turns out.