How To Survive In Science, And Have Fun Doing It – Follow Your Dreams

Jet d'Eau Geneva Switzerland

My desire to learn French took us to Geneva, and here’s the Jet d’Eau in Lac Léman. This led me into a satisfying career in Toxicology, The Science Of Poisons. Image modified with Alien Skin SnapArt

Follow your dreams, as you never know where they might lead.


white rats as petsOver 40 years, I learned a lot about how to survive in science, but I never did want to kill rats for a living. Due to one of my dreams, however, I entered the field of Toxicology (Science of Poisons), where ‘The Dose Makes The Poison (though people argue about that). Rats, unfortunately, are a common test subject. But I like rats a lot! They are bright, intelligent, and curious creatures. But what’s to do, test chemicals on rats and mice, or on our kids. My answer to that, after a 40 year career in the Science, is:

“Don’t set up animal experiments until there is no other alternative, and consider the application of mathematical modeling to hone your thinking, before you do.”

[Aside: I was recently asked to consult on a complex issue, and guess what the goal of the work is? To reduce animal experimentation – so, I’m still a scientist with a great mission, apart from plantar fasciitis!]

dairy cowsAlways ask yourself:

  1. Have I considered the need for the experiment in the first place?
  2. Have I run a gedankenexperiment (thought experiment) to explore what all possible outcomes would yield in terms of useful information for human risk assessment?
  3. Can the experiment be carried out using tissue culture or other methods?
  4. Have I considered exploring the underlying scientific question, with the aid of simple mathematical models?
FitOldDog's grammar school

FitOldDog’s Grammar School, in England, where he learned so much, in the late 1950s. It’s derelict now, which I found to be sad.

Taking such approaches can reduce laboratory animal use considerably, but how did I end up facing such questions, when I started out as a country vet, dealing mainly with dairy cows – lovely creatures.

It went like this – like most young people, I followed the random choices of the moment.

In Grammar School (High School in the USA), at the age of 16, I was summoned to the careers master’s office to discuss my future. He informed me that he, and several other teachers, had discussed my strengths as a student, and they were of one opinion – I should consider becoming a Biochemist. Sure surprised me! I replied, “But I would prefer to be a doctor, dentist or veterinarian.” He was briefly non plussed, and then informed me that I could get into Medical or Dental School, but it was not possible to qualify for Veterinary School, the competition was too tough (the English LOVE their animals!).

The decision was madenever tell a teenager they can’t do something – it became my goal to prove him wrong, and I did, at the University of Bristol Veterinary School. Whether he ever knew I have no idea.

Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust. Great French writer.

I was fairly accomplished veterinarian (that’s what some of the farmers said, anyway), but after three years in practice, but I was bored. I also had trouble dealing with difficult people (about 5% of the farmers we worked for). They kept me awake at night, worrying about their animal’s issues and whether I was using the best approach to treatment. I just did not enjoy being a country vet.

So, I applied for research jobs, found the perfect position in sheep disease’s research, in Scotland, had a great time learning all about maladies of the nervous system in sheep, and in the process, over a period of about five years, gained my Ph.D. (and essential meal ticket for a researcher). But I started to get itchy feet, again. We had three kids, the pay was almost at the poverty level, but I loved my job.

I am a born researcher, but I wanted to do something new.

Then I had an idea – I said to myself, “Boy! I loved learning French in school. How about finding a research job in a French-speaking country. Wouldn’t that be fun!


This dream took me to Geneva, Switzerland, to wonderful food, cultural experiences, and eventually to read Proust and other great French authors, then around the World, to finally become a nose expert, and to embrace applied mathematics. I had a many talented teachers along the way, most of whom were my students.

What a blast it has been, and I’m not dead yet.

What are your dreams?


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Disclaimer: As a veterinarian, I do not provide medical advice for human animals. If you undertake or modify an exercise program, consult your medical advisors before doing so. Undertaking activities pursued by the author does not mean that he endorses your undertaking such activities, which is clearly your decision and responsibility. Be careful and sensible, please.