Thursday, 30 April 2015

Tech Week! 'Having fun trying to crack puzzles!'

It’s Tech Week! I’m Émer and am currently studying science at university. Science can sometimes be seen as difficult or geeky, but I’m keen to dispel any such myths and tell you what makes it such an interesting and exciting subject - or even career!

I remember constantly asking questions growing up. These questions were about anything and everything; everyday things became little puzzles. Back then, my way of figuring out things was to ask Mum or Dad, who usually satisfied me with some explanation or other. Now though, when I have questions about things around me, it’s far more fun! I might mention it to a friend and together try to work out what’s going on. Sometimes we come up with an explanation, often not. However, I have come to realise that the exciting bit isn’t just being handed the answer - it’s the process of trying to figure it out. One you embrace the question and see it as a challenge, things you don’t understand cease being off-putting and instead become exciting. Any difficult or daunting problem in science is just a few smaller problems put together. The satisfaction of figuring out even the most mundane and small thing is something I really enjoy and is probably the main reason I ended up choosing to study science. 

Behind all the experiments, formulae, chemicals, maths proofs and equipment, the essence of science can sometimes be hard to see. Really, it all boils down to one thing: it’s having fun trying to crack puzzles. The aim is to build up a ‘toolbox’ of ideas, knowledge and tricks to help tackle them and approach different problems. Every new idea, skill and problem you encounter adds to your toolbox and makes problem-solving easier. The great thing about science is that this set of skills you build up can be used for all the new challenges which science presents. No-matter what level you are at, whether primary school, university or even as a professional scientist, you end up learning and discovering new things all the time. If you approach a homework question as a puzzle, and a lab experiment as a chance to figure out how something works, it becomes really fun. 

When I was in secondary school, I did a project based on a really practical design for an earthquake shelter. It was essentially tweaking an idea already developed and mainly involved testing models with a large hammer pendulum in my shed. Before that, science in my mind was a just a subject at school like any other, combined with a vague notion of scientists in white coats making radical discoveries in labs. The project made me understand that science is so much more than that; it involves pondering ideas and testing them out, as well as learning about concepts already understood. On a larger scale, science is the combination of theoretical analysis, experimental work, maths, computing and lots more. Another thing I find exciting about science and technology is that they encompass such a huge variety of areas; physics, chemistry and biology are just a basis for things like cosmology, biochemistry, neurobiology, meteorology, geology, materials science and even experimental psychology. Many classmates who did the same first year as me in our natural sciences degree are now studying completely different and diverse subjects, some of which I hadn't even heard of when starting university!

Science opens doors to lots of different careers. Apart from all the different fields of scientific research I mentioned, there are jobs in teaching, healthcare and a wide range of industries. Technology is becoming hugely important and there is always demand for people with a scientific background. Science has a huge significance in our world and it’s exciting to ponder being a part of saving, improving and impacting people’s lives. Could you imagine what the world would be like now if science and technology weren't continually advancing? Science is international and its importance spans all countries. The global cooperation involved in advancing science is exciting and people working in science often travel; researchers meet at conferences and do study phenomena globally, people in industry network and do business across the world and most importantly, science provides a common language between people of all nationalities. The opportunity to travel is definitely one of the perks of a job in science or technology! All that said, no-matter what you end up doing, science-related or not, the broad skills such as logical thinking and numerical ability you acquire through science are very useful and will always be an advantage. 

Finally, here are some tips for anyone pursuing science. Studying science is largely studying material which has already been understood; your job is to understand it for yourself. Question everything, play devil’s advocate and re-discover things for yourself. Pick it apart, see where the idea comes from and explore how it connects with other ideas. The best way to properly understand any concept is to teach it to somebody who doesn't understand it - there is a big difference between knowing the name of something and really knowing something! Also, never forget that there is nothing wrong with not being able to solve a problem straight away, and not every question in science has a neatly packaged answer. Most important of all is to never stop questioning!

~ Émer Jones, a 21-year-old student at Cambridge University, originally from Tralee, won the BT Young Scientist of the Year competition in 2008. 

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