photograph by Jeff Barnett-Winsby

Passion Project

One young scientist reflects on how he got this far.

Benyam Kinde has wanted to be a scientist since his days growing up in California, well before he entered the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Four years of college and a hands-on research experience solidified his dream. the HHMI Scholars Program at UMBC enables minority students to participate in research with the added benefit of a close-knit support network. Kinde thrived there and was named valedictorian. In his may 2010 graduation speech, he spoke about his passion for science. Here, he talks about its role in success.

When did you first get interested in science?

My dad is a large animal research veterinarian and as a nosy child, I wanted to see what he did on a day-to-day basis. I would tag along with him to work on the weekends, where I watched him determine how animals had died, based on his knowledge of everything from microorganisms to organ systems. As a child, this initiated my interest in learning more about all life forms, big and small, so that I too could one day answer “mysterious” questions. So even before going to college, I was interested in learning how to be a scientist. But UMBC provided a place for the transformation of that interest into a passion.

Becoming A Scientist

Meet Benyam Kinde and hear his views on passion, travel, and teamwork.
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In your valedictorian speech, you distinguished between passion and drive. How are they different?

I started thinking about this distinction when I read the book The Monk and the Riddle, by Randy Komisar. The book uses a story about a fictional entrepreneur to demonstrate that the most successful business ideas are those that are rooted in genuine passion. Komisar makes the point that drive pushes us toward something we feel obligated to do, while passion pulls us toward something we cannot resist.

Some of my classmates at UMBC may have begun college with an excellent work ethic and a desire to do well—we knew we could go to class, stay up late to study, and get involved in the community. But over the years, we figured out what our true passions were—whether in politics, law, business, science, or medicine—and that’s the real value of an education.

How does having passion help someone be a great scientist?

There is little instantaneous gratification in research. Not many earth-shattering discoveries will be made on any given day; the process is much slower. Passion can serve as internal motivation to keep you interested.

Also, passion can be infectious. Dr. Hrabowski, the president of UMBC, is notorious for speed walking from meeting to meeting, stopping only to ask students about their progress in classes and extracurricular activities since he last saw them. No matter how busy he may be, Dr. Hrabowski seems to never let his passion about his students weaken. That type of passion spreads rapidly and inspires students to discover how they want to impact the world. Being a great scientist is typically the result of working and collaborating with passionate people; in this way, passion and good science work synergistically.

Who in your career or your personal life shows great passion for what they do?

My extended family is in Ethiopia. I’ve gone to Ethiopia several times now, and my aunts and uncles are passionate about everything they do because they want to better the country. They don’t want to just make a living. They want to be the change for their country and their children.

My dad grew up in an impoverished village in Ethiopia. He did very well in high school and got a full scholarship to study veterinary medicine in Greece. While in school he worked nearly full time to send money back home to his family. The money went to buy a small house for his family and ensured that his relatives had the opportunity to go to school. It’s had a ripple effect: he supported his family, and then his family supported other families. And that ripple effect continues, as some have become teachers themselves.

You attended this summer’s Meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany. Who impressed you there?

Beyond the impressive show of scientific intellect, I was equally inspired by how involved many of the scientists are in some of the most pressing issues that face society. Harry Kroto, who won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996, is spending considerable time making information more accessible to children all over the world. These scientists are not just good scientists, they’re good people who realize the importance of using their knowledge and ideas to improve the future of our world.

The HHMI Scholars were a close-knit group of students. How did that help you succeed?

I think community support is critical for scientists and students. It comes back to the potentially slow nature of acquiring results in the lab or learning dense material in the classroom. If things aren’t going well, having a network of people to bounce ideas off, or go to for advice, can help everyone stay on track and keeps the whole group accountable.

What advice do you have for college students who are interested in science?

I would suggest students not become too focused on just answering a question, solving a problem, or publishing a paper. Rather, learn how to think critically about science. A simple way to do this is to read about some of the seminal experiments done in a field and ask, “How is this inconsistent with what we know today? How could this experiment be done differently? Why was the experiment designed the way it was?”

In addition, I think more students should travel abroad to see not only how others conduct science but how they live. Research necessitates interacting with colleagues around the world, so learning more about how others live differently can help science in the long run. Plus, traveling forces one to adapt to changes and think of solutions in new environments—a skill that will come in handy for a scientist.

Benyam Kinde is in the MD/PhD program at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.