The Art of Inquiry

My experience in classes has largely been dominated by a reticence to speak up, even when there’s a really interesting concept that I want to know more about. My initial thought is always, “My question is probably super dumb, and everyone already knows the answer except me.” This, in turn, leads to me spending a significant amount of time outside of class self-studying and combing through textbooks, and every time I finally answer my own question, I realize that I could have saved so much time and peace of mind if I had simply mustered the courage to just ask my question. But like clockwork, I always find myself returning to this inefficient cycle, convincing myself that no one would want to bother themselves with my questions.

Thankfully, a recent research experience forced me to break this cycle. This summer, I conducted virtual research in a group whose work combined one subject I had only just started to learn (inorganic chemistry) and one subject I knew nothing about (quantum information science). Before my official first day, my graduate student mentor sent me a few papers to read to introduce me to the group’s work, and I was immediately overwhelmed by the sheer amount of unfamiliar terms, figures, and concepts. There was simply too much I didn’t know. This time around, self-studying wasn’t going to work even if I tried, because the only thing that I knew was that I didn’t know where to begin.

When I met with my graduate student mentor and voiced some of these concerns, he responded with some advice along these lines: “Don’t be afraid to ask questions. The worst thing that could happen is that you ask a question and the other person doesn’t know the answer, which, more often than not, will motivate that person to revisit and strengthen their knowledge base so that they can be better prepared for that question in the future.” Call it a simplification if you’d like, but it seems to me that in the end, asking questions will always result in a net gain of knowledge. Either the person you ask can give you an answer, increasing your knowledge, or your question prompts that person to find out the answer, increasing their knowledge. So what’s there to lose in just asking?

With this in mind, I forced myself out of my comfort zone and reached out to various group members with questions about unfamiliar concepts or about interesting points presented in their research. I pushed past the worry about whether I came off as too inexperienced. I pushed past the worry about whether my questions were “advanced” enough. I pushed past the worry about whether the graduate students would grow exasperated with having to explain “simple” concepts. And I’m glad I did. Every time, I found that the graduate students that I asked were more than willing — even eager — to answer my questions and then ask if I had any more questions. Asking, asking, and asking again made a world of difference in my virtual research this summer. I was able to pick up new information and make sense of current work in the field with much more ease, speed, and retention than I had ever before with just self-studying.

I believe that science, at its purest, is the art of inquiry. Science begins and ends with what, why, how, how much, when, and every other question word under the sun, and I believe that it’s this very curiosity that draws you, the current or prospective chemistry major reading this, and me to science again and again. As you continue on in your scientific journey, I hope you find inspiration, not shame, in asking questions.

Faith Chen, ’22

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