PacSci Perspectives


Generations of Curiosity: How Grandpa Joe’s Curiosity Ignited Mine

by | Dec 20, 2017

Gabe Murphy

My Grandpa Joe and I were born at very different times, under very different circumstances, and on opposite sides of the country. We, nonetheless, shared at least one important trait: the desire to learn by experimenting.

Grandpa Joe asked and answered a set of daunting questions as an 8-year-old immigrating to Los Angeles from Mexico. He asked ‘How can I learn a language and culture with which my parents are unfamiliar and, at the same time, contribute financially to my family?’ and answered it, in part, by listening to conversations at the golf course at which he served as a caddy.

I didn’t need to learn a second language or culture as a child, and the income my parents earned – as a middle school teacher and carpenter – meant that I didn’t need to work. Therefore, the questions I asked were relatively simple and inconsequential: ‘How can a Eucalyptus tree sway that far without breaking?’, ‘how does an airplane remain aloft?’, ‘How does that massive aircraft carrier I explored last week float?’, ‘What contributes to the size, variability, and timing of waves breaking on the beach?’

Later in his life, as an anesthesiologist, Grandpa Joe posed and answered questions that improved patient care. His desire and ability to experiment led to the use of modern anesthetic agents and minimized the use of ether. He also helped introduce modern technology to more quickly and easily intubate patients during surgical procedures

My curiosity in the natural world, and the satisfaction that Grandpa Joe derived from understanding the human body and treating deficits in its function, made a career in medicine appealing. The same curiosity, however, drove me to (1) wonder whether I might enjoy a career in research and (2) test that possibility.

My experience working in a lab the summer after my freshman year of college was a revelation.There, with a mentor’s help, I could make an observation, design and perform an experiment to test a particular explanation for that observation, and then interpret the results of the experiment. Since then, I’ve delighted in asking, and answering, questions about how the nervous system gathers and interprets information about sensory stimuli.

My experience is that scientific inquiry, like life in general, is a constant cycle of asking questions, devising ways to distinguish between one of several distinct answers, performing an experiment, and then repeating the process. Curiosity and experimentation are critical to this process; so too is the presence of role models and mentors. Grandpa Joe was an important – indeed a necessary – source of encouragement that I hope to emulate for the next generation of scientists.

Gabe Murphy is part of Pacific Science Center's Science Communication Fellowship Program and regularly participates in Meet a Scientist events at the Science Center. Gabe works at the Allen Institute for Brain Science where he and his team characterize the electrophysiological properties of neurons and the means by which neurons communicate with one another.