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What is science?

Meet the scientists!

Dr. Walker O. Smith, Jr., Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, The College of William & Mary, Gloucester Point, VA.

Dr. Walker O. Smith Jr.When not working, Dr. Smith greatly enjoys playing competitive tennis (in regional tournaments) and working out. He also likes to refinish hard-wood furniture, ride his motorcycle, sail and travel (despite all the travel he does with his job!). Finally, he relishes the opportunity to relax with a good book and a good beer.

Why are you a scientist?
I became a scientist, and specifically an oceanographer, because I was fascinated seeing the changes in Lake Erie as I grew up. Moving from a large lake to the ocean was a logical step. I was encouraged by my brother-in-law, who is a geologist, to seek the answers to the questions I was posing.

What is science?
Science can be considered as a way of looking at nature and how all the parts interact to produce the whole. The ocean is a great example. I can’t understand phytoplankton without knowing the currents, weather, chemistry, ecology, and more, and you can’t understand how the ocean works unless you appreciate the biological aspects. All science is like that, from quarks to buckyballs to elephants.

What skills and qualities are necessary in order to be a scientist?
What is not necessary is being the smartest person out there. Most scientists I know are smart, but the good ones have a curiosity honed by experience and training to investigate interesting and important problems. It is equally important to be able to interact positively with your peers. Finally, it is important to have the courage of your convictions and to pursue what you believe is important.

What is most enjoyable about your job?
The fun thing about my job is teaching younger folks, the graduate students, how to appreciate the intricacies of research, show them an honest view of their chosen profession, and how to succeed in the field. When they understand, it is a tremendous joy for me. I love the actual research and getting my hands wet, and the intellectual interactions with my peers – the mental challenges!

What frustrations do you face with your job?
Like most people, I have an interest in more things than I have time for. I get just as much pleasure in playing a good, three-hour tennis match as I do from a successful grant proposal, but the difference is that the tennis is purely for me, while the grant is for many. I wish I had twice as much time for everything. I also get frustrated with meetings and paperwork and concerns about unimportant matters that detract from what I really should be doing.

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The bold words that are on this page are words that are in the glossary. You can find their meanings below.

If you want to see the whole glossary, click here.

biological:
related to the science that studies the growth and life processes of living things

buckyballs:
ball-shaped molecules of carbon

chemistry:
the science that studies basic elements and their compounds

competitive:
trying to win; working against someone else

convictions:
beliefs or opinions that are strongly held

currents:
masses of liquid or air that flow in one direction

ecology:
science that studies the relationships among plants, animals, and the environment

grant:
money for a specific research purpose

intricacies:
complex and complicated

oceanography:
the science and study of oceans

phytoplankton:
small plants (best seen with a microscope) floating in the upper layer of the ocean

quarks:
an elementary particle; a building block of protons and neutrons

tournaments:
contests of skill; a series of games