Richard Dean Anderson as MacGyver

Richard Dean Anderson as MacGyver, 1985

I did not spend my elementary-school-era Saturday mornings watching cartoons. No, when I pounced on the couch at 5:30 am with my bowl of cereal, I tuned in to the wise tutelage of Angus MacGyver, the lead character of the TV series “MacGyver”. MacGyver, as portrayed by Richard Dean Anderson from 1985 until 1992, was a special agent who solved problems using practical science and engineering. On a weekly basis, he out-thought poachers, drug dealers, communist spies, and any other bad guys he crossed paths with. In doing so, he served as a role model who was drastically different from the muscle-bound “men of action” who littered ‘80s television and film.

My affection for the television series goes beyond nostalgia; I credit “MacGyver” as a significant inspiration to my scientific career. By watching the show, I learned from a young age that cleverness and compassion were much more effective tools in combating “evil” than gunpowder and brawn. Now as a graduate student, I’ve come to realize that “MacGyver” also contains many lessons that are relevant to the broader scientific community.

For instance, MacGyver was a master of applying old science in surprising new ways. In life-or-death situations, he could always be counted on to come up with a creative solution to a problem. It’s true, scientific research is rarely life-or-death, but we are all occasionally overwhelmed — more often than not because our experimental data isn’t coming out as theory predicts. We start to wonder: “do I even know the science necessary to describe the phenomenon correctly?” In that moment of doubt, try to think like MacGyver. Even though the perfect tools might not be available, there must be something lying around the lab that will get the ball rolling. A great scientist needs to apply that MacGyver-esque mindset of being flexible and making due with limited resources.

MacGyver was also a pacifist. He used science instead of guns to thwart many a villain’s dastardly plan. While I don’t necessarily think great scientists must be pacifists, we should be aware of the effect our work has on the world around us. This applies not just to our experimental results, but also to how we dispose of our waste and impact the environment. In addition, awareness breeds charity. Just as MacGyver volunteered in schools and worked with orphans, scientists should step away from the lab from time to time and have a positive impact on the surrounding world. One very easy way to do this is by volunteering to teach the general public about science.

The final MacGyver-esque quality that I think scientists would do well to adopt is this: MacGyver didn’t take himself (or science) too seriously. He tried his best to be confident and effective with the kludges he produced, but he always had a sense of humor about it. For too many scientists — graduate students in particular — research is an all-consuming struggle. We don’t realize that it’s not always necessary to conquer every experiment. Sometimes, failure is okay, especially if it generates a few laughs along the way. And perhaps that is MacGyver’s most important lesson of all.