A couple of weeks ago, I had dinner with some friends, and one of them asked me why I was interested in doing research, having some trouble understanding how it benefited me — was there some kind of commercial or financial benefit? My answer at the time was probably inadequate; I replied that it was all about one’s personal satisfaction at learning new things, researching the answers to questions we haven’t yet answered.
Today I got a bit of an inkling at a more psychologically adequate answer. That’s not to say that it’s the "correct," or complete, or the only answer, but I immediately recognized it as a gut-level truth, at least within the scope of my life. I attended our department’s reception for graduate students and faculty, held at the beginning of the academic year, and met a number of new and returning students, many of whom (because I’ve been off doing business and other things) I’d never met.
One of the students told me of a class taught the previous year where they’d read a paper I’d written with Carl Lipo (and likely others, I didn’t catch the exact citation, but I’m guessing Lipo et al. 1997). He mentioned it because of the oddity of actually running into and meeting one of the authors, but for me the experience was significant. Here was somebody who knew something about me before ever having met me — in this case, how I thought and what I thought about a topic. He’d encountered some aspect of me as assigned reading in a class, and thus was acquainted with something I’d done and thought, years before.
We hope to be known, ultimately, by our words and thoughts and ideas. We hope to be assigned reading, or the fortuitous article or book encountered in the library late one night. We hope to be the idea that causes somebody else’s project or thoughts to finally "gel" and come together. Just as others served as the building blocks with which we had a tiny nugget of a new idea, we hope to be the seeds of someone else’s new ideas, down the road. Most of my ideas and published works will not accomplish this, but some might, whether in a small or large way.
And with that, I greet the new academic year, secure in the knowledge that something I wrote is being read. And that’s why I, and many others, do research.