A few weeks after arriving in Ann Arbor for graduate school, nearly four years ago, the strangest thing happened to me. I was walking to the public library downtown to return a mystery novel, book in hand, when I was approached by a kid. He and his friend had been skateboarding and he had what appeared to be a sprained ankle. He asked me, “Hey, are you a scientist?” I hesitated, I had never been asked a question like that before. Then I replied with, “I'm not sure,” more eager to be on my way than anything else. But he kept on it. “Well, are you majoring in a science?” I was, so I answered in the affirmative. Then he got to his question. I don't remember the exact phrasing, but he wanted to know if, in my expert opinion, his ankle was too injured to continue skateboarding. So I gave him some “motherly” advice and we parted ways.
Obviously I didn't need a degree in science to help this kid out, but my science background made him view me as someone with expertise in a broad range of scenarios. And so, as I continued walking, I thought to myself, am I truly a scientist? I had never really considered the possibility before. Sure, I've performed experiments, participated in research, and studied science, but did that make me a scientist? As a child, I had this view of a scientist as an old, wise individual making very important discoveries with high-level thought. A scientist was a near mystical, all-knowing figure with supreme authority to make judgments on all scientific findings, whatever the field. Surely that wasn't me. But here I was, clearly not that old, wise individual, yet being asked a question as a scientist nonetheless.
At that time, I had just barely begun work on my Ph.D. in Engineering and I still probably would've told you that I was not a scientist; I just didn't feel like one. Today, however, I look at things a bit differently. Although I'm not that omniscient scientist I pictured as a kid, I'm performing impactful research every day. In fact, the stories I read about in the news involving scientific breakthroughs are based heavily on research conducted by graduate students. And yes, the graduate students' names aren't usually the ones in the papers, but they're certainly the ones making the important, day-to-day discoveries.
So, if you're a graduate student, take pride in yourself and in your work. You've worked hard to get to where you are today and you will only continue to work hard during your time at Michigan. It's in your nature. One day your research might result in the next big scientific breakthrough, or maybe you'll meet a kid on the street asking you a question. Either way, you have the potential to make a big impact on the world: today, you are a scientist.