23 November 2013

Save the Day essays #7: How the Doctor made me better

The man who makes people better. How sanctimonious is that?

– The Master, “The Sound of Drums,” Doctor Who, 2007

Doctor Who helped make me become a scientist.

True, I might have been a scientist if I never watched Doctor Who. I had a lot of personality traits that helped pushed me towards being some sort of technical career. I was always inclined to science as a kid (dinosaurs and spaceships littered my rooms), I consumed a lot of science fiction, and I was a “smart kid” who got good grades in school.

But there’s a big difference between things that you do when you’re playing as a kid, and sticking out a long haul in graduate school to make science your life’s work. Grad school is tough. It has a high attrition rate. Lots of people do not make it. To make it, you need something to look forward to that can keep you going.

When I introduce myself to students, I joke that, “I went to grad school so I could be called Doctor Zen, and sound like the villain from a bad kung fu movie.” That gets a laugh, but it’s not true. (Though I am prouder than you know that “Doctor Zen” is a role-playing game villain; see here and here.)

The truth is that one of the things that kept me going in grad school was that if I made it, I could be called, “Doctor.” Just a little bit like one of my heroes.

Doctor Who made the title conferred by a Ph.D. important to me in a way that nothing else ever did.

For most people, “doctor” means “physician.” I never, ever, had any interest in going into the health professions. Of all the other scientific characters that I loved from science fiction, none of them really brought the title to the fore. Spock from Star Trek was always, “Mr. Spock” (I guess Spock only ever finished his master’s). Buckaroo Banzai was just, well, Buckaroo Banzai.

Doctor Who made me want to be a doctor. So I could be called “Doctor Zen.”

I didn’t have direct inspiration from the TV series when I was in grad school.

“Survival,” the last episode of the classic series (above) aired the year I started grad school. A series of books (“The New Doctor Who Adventures”) rarely satisfied me. The TV movie (right) aired after I defended my dissertation. I became a doctor when the Doctor was missing.

I wrote back in 2003 when the show’s rebirth was announced:

The Doctor represented so much of what I thought a scientist should be. Adept in solving problems of all sorts, whether it be preventing a Dalek invasion or patching a piece of broken equipment. That “Renaissance man” aspect in particular is one I love... . Not taking the word of authority ... Traveling the universe. Good companions. .. And it’s one reason why I sometimes suggest people call me “Doctor Zen” – it has the sort of same slightly cool ring as “Doctor Who.” At least it does to my vain ears.

It’s not just me:

I see so many children in schools who, because of their love of this silly old show, want to act, write, record music, sing or become scientists.

And it’s not just Doctor Who. Jacquelyn Gill wrote:

Watching The X-Files again reminds me of how big of an inspiration Scully was to me. Bigger role model than any living scientist.

I mentioned Spock before. The actor who created the character, Leonard Nimoy, has met lots of scientists that trace their lineage back to him.

(B)ecause Mr. Spock and Star Trek have inspired so many young viewers to become scientists, researchers who meet him are always desperate to give him lab tours and explain the projects they’re pursuing in peer-to-peer terms. Mr. Nimoy nods sagely and intones to each one, “Well, it certainly looks like you’re headed in the right direction.”

There is a lot of concern in the scientific community to provide scientists with role models and mentors. Those are important. But let’s never forget how many people are inspired by heroes from fiction. Dare I say, those made up characters might matter more in making decisions about what kind of person we want to become.

We tell the tale of heroes to remind ourselves that we also can be great.
- Tao of Shinsei

The Doctor is one of my heroes. I have yet to fight monsters or save the day, but I do love that in my job, I get to imagine and discover new things. The Doctor taught me that there’s a whole universe out there to explore.

Come on. We’ve got work to do!

Save the Day essays

Save the Day essays #1: Restoration
Save the Day essays #2: Recovery
Save the Day essays #3: Family
Save the Day essays #4: Rewatching the rebirth
Save the Day essays #5: Playing favourites
Save the Day essays #6: Anarchy in the U.K.

Related posts

A role model returns

External links

Carrying the torch – Doctor Who at 50

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