Life Lessons from a Research Career

by Geraldine Richmond | May 26, 2020

Geraldine Richmond

National Medal of Science Recipient and Sigma Xi President Geraldine Richmond shares five things she has learned about life and having a research career. 

Richmond, the Presidential Chair in Science and a professor of chemistry at the University of Oregon, gave the following remarks on May 14, 2020, to students as part of her keynote address during the Sigma Xi Virtual Student Scholars Symposium. 

As I look back on my career journey, I take great pride in our research accomplishments, but I realize that I have found my deepest fulfillment in the human interactions. 

My life is rich beyond measure from the mentors who have shared their gifts with me, the colleagues who have expanded my capacities, and the students and postdocs who have taught me even as I’ve worked to guide them. In my younger years I had a very monolithic view of scientists, always serious, a bit too preoccupied with their laboratories and nearly noncommunicative with the general public. How wrong I was.

Expect the unexpected, even in scientists.

I am constantly inspired by the spirit of the students and researchers that I have met through Sigma Xi who prove time and again the power of creativity. It’s easy for us to get lost in the complexities of our work, but it’s important to remember that we can’t succeed without one another. Our human connections are crucial to making great science. 

With those thoughts in mind, I leave you with a few bits of advice as you go forward in your career.

1. Take ownership of your career

What comes next is what you make of it. I challenge you to define it for yourself. To think deeply about what you value, cherish, and respect and use that to build your career and life path.

Today there are so many different paths for satisfying careers in science and engineering. Beyond the academic, government laboratory, and industry routes there are amazing opportunities in science policy and diplomacy, humanitarian efforts, law, entrepreneurship, science communication, journalism, the foreign service, and national defense. In fact, so many that I now view the academic road that I have followed as being the alternative career path.

Tragic is the person who awakens to realize that they have spent their life trying to satisfy the expectations of others, rather than following their own dreams. Living some else’s life. There is no do-over. No roundabouts to allow you to try again.

2. Be willing to take risks 

Now as a mother myself, I don’t mean jumping on a Harley and racing 120 mph down the freeway.

I do however mean doing things in your career that take you out of your comfort zone, that challenge your personal paradigms, that have unpredictable outcomes.   

This is not the territory for perfectionists nor is it for the person that always stays in their lane. You enter the venture with the recognition that although it may have a low probability of success, the achievement could be of high impact.  

Successful ventures that take you out of your lane are an incredible way to build confidence.   

3. And on that topic of confidence, 

When making an important decision in your life, whether you come to a fork in the road or the option of making a significant detour, never make that decision when you are tired, angry, or over-worked.

Your brain needs to be fully functioning to make such decisions and exhaustion and anger diminishes your ability to think clearly and with full brain capacity.   

And most important: never make an important life decision when your self- esteem is at a low point. Make it when you are at the top of your game. Make decisions based on your strengths and not when you brain is playing a silly game of obsessing over your weaknesses that may even be irrelevant.

4. Embrace diversity in your life and in your work.

Research shows that teams of social and intellectual diversity are more creative and effective in problem solving. Although working with someone that is different than yourself, for example, by sex, gender identity, ethnicity, politics, race or color may be a little uncomfortable at first, it is actually that discomfort that is proven to lead to more creative thinking and innovative solutions.

5. And finally, recognize that no one in this world makes it alone.  

You are here today because of so many people that have helped you along the way—from the teacher that inspired you in the early years, to the friends who never gave up on you— even when you embarrassed them beyond belief, to the neighbor that always had a smile and hello. And of course your family.

The act of giving is known to stimulate the reward center in the brain—releasing endorphins and creating what is known as the “helper’s high.” And like other highs, this one is addictive.

Thank them, tell them how much you appreciate them. It’s good for them and equally good for you.   

With that, I thank you all for letting me be part of this special day with you. 

Congratulations on your research successes,  And be sure to expect the unexpected.  That’s what can make science so interesting and fun.  

Learn more about the Virtual Student Scholars Symposium

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