Why I Do Science

Zinmay Renee Sung


My mother brought me up to be a self-reliant woman. After majoring in botany in college, I pursued higher education and a career as a university professor. By then I was accustomed to spending day and night either in the lab doing experiments or writing manuscripts for publications and grant proposals for funding.

The life I lead is not ideal for many, and a professor’s salary, divided by the hours we work, could be considered a low wage. Most people work in order to go home and play, while I am always lingering in the lab or office late into the night. Why? Maybe because I am habituated to the lifestyle and work has become a hobby. But whatever problem I am studying, I think about it constantly, and unconsciously, at work, at home, and at play.

What is so interesting and captivating? I think it is the unknown, the unexpectedness. When designing an experiment to test a hypothesis, my students and I have some predicted outcomes in mind. However, results often turn out the opposite way or are incomprehensible. We can sit on these results for months, unable to comprehend them. And then one day, it dawns on me what the results are telling us. This has happened many times. These are the exhilarating moments that we live for, and I break out a bottle of champagne to celebrate with my students!

During the semester, teaching is my first priority. It gives me great joy to talk with students and witness their enlightenment when they finally get something they’ve been struggling to understand. Moreover, teaching plant biology has given me more insights about plants than I’ve gained from my experimental findings.

Great technical advances that benefit mankind have been made as a result of unexpected scientific results. However, what keeps me doing science is the satisfaction I derive from understanding a small, tiny piece of nature.

PMB professor Zinmay Renee Sung, PhD ’73 plant biology, served as Graduate Division associate dean and on the Academic Senate’s Committee on the Status of Women and Minorities.