By Daniel Tarade
Two kids meet in grade school. They become best friends and grow up together through high school. As friends, they play sports and video games. However, in school, friend #1 is interested in science while friend #2 takes a wide variety of classes. When it comes to apply to university, friend #1 goes into a biochemistry program while friend #2 enters the same university without declaring a major. In their first year, they take one class together, which marks the last time they go to school together. Before his second year, friend #2 declares Kinesiology as his major, motivated by a fondness for sports and fitness. However, the story goes that as friend #2 entered his first lecture, he was overwhelmed by the hundreds of students already in their seats. Friend #2 thought to himself that if he is not passionate about Kinesiology, how is he meant to compete with so many people. Within weeks, friend #2 drops out of the University. For most people, dropping out of school would represent some sort of failure. But friend #2 instead embraces this period of his life. Friend #1 remembers this period as one of uncontained optimism and excitement often associated with traveling off-road. Friend #2 considered robotics, engineering, and computer science but ultimately decides to become an electrician. In hindsight, this was the perfect choice. Friend #2 always loved working with his hands, fixing up old cars, and doing renovations with his old man. Jump cut and they are still friends, now in their mid-twenties. Friend #1 continues his path down science, now in the midst of a PhD, while friend #2 is almost finished his electrical apprenticeship.
From an outsider’s perspective, these two career paths might seem to be completely different. A scientist is often viewed by society as a while-collar profession, associated with intelligence and education. Conversely, an electrician is a quintessential blue-collar job, classically associated with the working class and a lack of education. However, I find the distinction between blue-collar and white-collar, and the emergent stereotypes, incredibly arbitrary.
First, the path to becoming a scientist and an engineer are quite similar. The scientist obtains an undergraduate degree. The electrician obtains a college degree. The scientist goes on to graduate school (roughly five to eight years). The electrician completes an apprenticeship (roughly four years). Both graduate school and an apprenticeship focus on developing practical and critically thinking skills developed while working on the job. The graduate student learns how to conduct experiments while the apprentice is taught how to work with electricity. Interspersed throughout the graduate student and apprenticeship experience is in-class education. By the end of both graduate school and an apprenticeship, the developing professional can work independently and properly contribute to a research lab or electrical company. The culmination of a PhD is a defence (a comprehensive oral exam) and the culmination of an electrical apprenticeship is getting your ticket (a comprehensive written exam). At this point, you are either a scientist or an electrician. Underlying these "divergent" professions is a training program with remarkable similarities.
The similarities between an electrician and a scientist extend deeper. Not only are training programs structured similarly, the type of work is also comparable. Both professions often involve quite a bit of hands-on work. Much like the electrician spends a lot of time connecting wires, installing electrical outlets, and planning circuits the scientist spends time making buffers, cloning plasmids, and purifying protein. These tasks require working with your hands and often follow some sort of protocol. In both professions, sometimes you need to troubleshoot. Why is my protein aggregating? Why does this fuse keep blowing? Also, both fields require specialized knowledge. I personally do not understand electricity and my friend does not understand mammalian oxygen sensing. However, we can both break down our areas of expertise such that the other can appreciate what the other does.
Lastly, consider the end goal of an electrician and scientist. A scientist may desire to become a principle investigator and run their own lab. An electrician may aspire to start their own company. In both instances, employees would include trainees (apprentices and graduate students) as well as permanent staff (research associates who have completed their PhD and electricians who have their ticket). Although societally, the process of science is often depicted as a series of breakthroughs and eureka moments, I would reckon that the majority of scientific labs follow a script. Sequence x number of tumour samples for mutations, find a new mutation, introduce that mutation to immortalized human cell lines, study the impact of mutation on cell proliferation or ability to form tumours in mice, screen drug libraries for a modulator of the mutated protein, etc etc. Or identify a protein that has been linked to some disease, perform high throughput affinity purification and identify interacting partners, verify interaction between endogenous proteins in cell lines, clone the various the domains of the proteins to identify the binding interface, knockdown expression of the proteins to identify importance for the pathway, etc etc. It may seem complicated but to those in the field, it is standard and does not require much scientific thinking. Most science is labour. Running a lab and managing a small electrical company are not dissimilar and requires the ability to manage people, balance a budget, and organize structure.
What are the differences? People seem to ascribe additional merit to science and, by extension, scientists because the outcome of science, as a collective, advances medicine and technology. The same outcome is not associated with electricians, who are generally viewed as applying a field of knowledge to localized problems instead of creating knowledge. I do concede that there is an emergent property associated with science that arises from having many labs working in the same field. However, the average scientist is not the hero perched on a pedestal ala Jonas Salk, Rosalind Franklin, and Marie Curie. I contend that for the average scientist and electrician, their training and work life follows a similar structure. Both are knowledgeable in a specific field and apply that knowledge to solve problems.