I finally realized last night that I had been tricking myself into believing (like several others in the field) something that is actually not completely true. Now that I am at the cross roads, embarking on a 5 year commitment to science, a commitment to a lab and its work, I need to pause and call myself a hypocrite.
Ask the life science students why they do what they do. 95% of them will tell you something like "I want to cure cancer", "I think I know what to do about AIDS", "I want to solve world hunger" (some people do genuinely want to do that actually, its not fair to say they don't). I realized that most of us have this need to know that in this life that we have, we will leave behind a mark that will be recognized for generations to come. So why not make the lives of a few people better while working towards that. Set a lofty goal.
I frankly don't know how my dissertation project is going to help solve anything for anybody. All it does is satiate my hunger in the field of neuroscience and my curiosity about neurogenesis and neuroplasticity (so proud of myself to be able to use these words!). But that's probably as far as I go. If I was that keen on helping solve the mystery of some neuropsychiatric disorder, why didn't I join a lab working on Parkinson's or Alzheimer's? Or even a lab working on drug addiction relapse or depression therapies? To be honest, sometimes the work in those labs also seem to go tangential to what they claim to be doing. They always lose sight of the bigger picture (eg.: develop more effective anti-depressants that work long-term but have effects immediately). It takes most of them 20-30 mins to figure out why this amazing knock out mouse is going to help solve the problem. Why is that?
Here's a not-so-inconvenient truth.
We tell everybody that the ultimate goal is to cure XYZ with this research. Because the money to fund your lab is scarce. And NIH wants to know that they are making a good investment by funding you. They need to know you are doing something related to "health". Duh. Its the National Institutes of Health.
But just admit it once. The reason you do what you do is not because you wanna so badly cure XYZ.
You are doing it because that's what makes you the happiest and there is nothing else you'd rather be doing in this world other than looking at brain slices under the microscope to learn something new each day.
And sometimes, that is a perfectly valid justification for doing what you do :) :) :)