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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Looking for Answers

<ll of 2009, I applied to 11 colleges. In addition to my Common Application essay, which, as it so happens, was about a mound of trash, I completed an endless pile of supplemental materials, describing why each school would benefit from my enrollment, explaining “What I Want To Do With My Life.” The answer was always the same. I love science. I want to do research. I want to figure things out that no one else knew before.

I fell in love with biology when I was 14, while taking a basic biology course from a teacher who always seemed half asleep in class and consistently had his fly halfway down. We never learned much in class, but I spent hours poring over my textbook, copying down the facts and diagrams in multi-colored ink. The elegance of living systems captivated me, the perfect storm of logic and chaos that made up the biosphere, and the gaps where our understanding faded into nothing. I wanted to take up the fraying discolored edges of knowledge and paint them in with answers and explanations. The questions were there, all around me, and I was itching to find answers.

In 2012, it was discovered that males in the species Nyssodesmus python, a giant tropical millipede, experience reduced mating success when one or more legs are missing. The research that led to this conclusion was conducted at the La Selva Biological Reserve in Costa Rica by a group of three undergraduate students, two from the United States, and the other from Singapore. I was one of those students, and if you have never heard about this experiment, that is not surprising. No one except our professors and classmates knew about our study, which was one of about ten independent projects conducted while our group was staying at that field station. This work was not published, and I doubt it would make a difference if it had been. One of the most important things that I have learned about science is that knowledge is much easier to come by than solutions. Since applying to colleges, I have done original research, uncovered secrets of our biological world never before explored by humans. I have this new knowledge. So what. Does any of it matter?

I want it to matter. I believe in science, I believe in research, and I believe in the possibility of solving problems with data-based solutions. Biology has passed the era when new discoveries were made by examining specimens preserved in jars and doing dissections. We now have complex experimental designs with controls and blocked treatments, as well as rigorous statistical tests. It is not a perfect system, but it is extremely powerful and we have learned a lot. But even when there is ample information, we may still be a long way from finding a solution.

What do I want to do with my life? On a practical level, I have no idea. I cannot tell you where I will be in five years, literally or figuratively. I do know, however, that I want to keep doing research, keep looking for answers. Making discoveries is thrilling, but it is not going to be enough. I want to pursue the missing pieces of our puzzles, and then look at the larger pictures they create. To figure out the details that matter, that will enable us to reshape our relationship with the world.

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