Ability and Desire

As a young scientist whose passions extend far beyond the lab bench, I’ve had varying amounts of difficulty believing that I should stick with an academic career. To be the kind of productive I like to be in lab, that I feel proud of, I have to give an awful lot of my intellectual/emotional energy and time to the bench. While satisfaction definitely comes with this level of productivity, it’s not sustainable for me over the long term. I generally end up too brain dead to do other things to fill me up like reading for fun, crafting, and playing Ultimate.

I watched Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist early in grad school. It was immediately clear to me that the life of a scientist that I was in the process of discovering and that is represented in the film was and is not how I want my life to look. The steps that I’ve taken since then to finish grad school and to pursue available career options have always been a conscious choice, not one I’m making because I feel forced out or like I couldn’t make it.

After a particularly great data week in lab, on a high from presenting the heck out of my research, or while having a fantastic discussion with my colleagues, I sometimes think to myself, “Yeah, I can do this!” The other side of the coin, though, which I seem to end up on much more often, is that, while I love to talk and think and read about science, I don’t love the actual doing of it.

In the Ivory Tower culture that calls all career paths but its own “alternative” and gossips constantly about people who can’t make it to or won’t go for the tenure track, it hasn’t been easy to accept this non-inclination in myself. But at the penultimate moment of my PhD, I am super clear. Academic science is not the place for me for much longer.

Could I do it? Probably. Do I want to? Not particularly, so why not go a different direction and make room for someone who does?

There’s fascinating conversation happening around the twitterverse and the blogosphere about life in academia and how much/little room it leaves for other things today and yesterday:

Partially storified (by @BabyAttachMode) twitter conversation here
Dr. Isis’s Post
In Baby Attach Mode’s Post
Potnia Theron’s Post
Barefoot Doctoral’s Post
NicoleandMaggie’s Post



Kate Clancy’s blog, Context and Variation, has been in my Google Reader since early grad school. I have always been in awe of how much of herself (both personal and professional) she shares online, so when I read the posts from Kate and Scicurious introducing their Science Online session exploring online identity, I marked it on my calendar to follow along via Twitter. I had a pretty light morning in lab that day, but if you missed it, you can read the wrap-up/Storify from Scicurious here. (I found Sci’s transitions between the tweets super helpful in grasping more of what went on in the session).

When I first started thinking about identity, I didn’t immediately think of my online identity. I am pretty new to being a science communicator online, and so far, especially since I’m pretty sure that only my parents are reading, I haven’t struggled much with my online identity.

Instead, I thought immediately about the challenges I’ve had throughout grad school feeling as though I am being honest about all of who I am. In the Storify from Scicurious, she mentions that the #scio13ID session had in attendance more women than men, a higher concentration of minorities, and more academics than in other sessions, which makes me think that it’s not just me who sometimes struggles with the question of how we portray ourselves in the different arenas of our lives.

In academic science, we often celebrate a scientist’s obsession with a research question to the exclusion of all other things about him or her. The biggest impact this aspect of science culture has on me, though, is that I feel the need to carefully control how much people know about me. I am proud of my time as a women’s Ultimate Frisbee player and coach, but I don’t shout about it at work. I love dyeing and screen printing fabric, but I doubt my labmates know it. I read fiction voraciously and am a member of three book clubs, but I limit literary conversations with my boss to what I’ve read in the scientific realm.

All of these parts of me (science, Ultimate, fiber arts, reading, etc.) combine to make up my identity, both as a scientist and as a person, but I still don’t feel comfortable confessing that I don’t spend all my time in lab or thinking about science. This discomfort is one reason I have always found Kate Clancy’s online identity to be surprising and inspiring: she shares many things about herself with readers/followers, while maintaining what seems to be a successful professional life as an anthropologist. I readily admit that I can be sensitive to criticism, but I bet I’m not the only one who keeps parts of her identity from scientific colleagues.

Along these lines, the concept of personal versus private definitely came up in the #scio13ID session. Participants talked mostly about sharing personal details to give weight to their writing, while keeping private things that should be. In terms of academic science, I and other young scientists don’t need to share every aspect of private life to feel as though our whole selves are being acknowledged. It would be nice, though, to feel as though we won’t be penalized for having interests, commitments, and passions outside the lab.

I am so thankful for everyone who tweeted from the #scio13ID session and especially to Kate Clancy and Scicurious for including those of us who weren’t physically present in this conversation. As I move forward in my career, at and away from the bench, off and online, I am going to keep in mind both the role that I play in how my identity is perceived and how my identity can work for me.


Andy Fire visited Vanderbilt yesterday and spoke as part of the Discovery Lecture series. The grad students in our lab got to meet with him and take him through a data blitz, and then we heard his lecture. During the group meeting, I was struck by how quickly he followed our research and had ready, relevant questions. His sharpness was also obvious during his lecture, and when processing it afterwards with my labmates, the consensus was that the lecture was among the best we have heard.

Part of what made the talk great was Dr. Fire’s quiet passion for his science, present as an undertone throughout. The other part is that his presentation of the material was undeniably clear. He has mastered the delicate middle ground between overloading the listener with and not using enough jargon. Jargon can be dangerous for scientists and scientific communicators alike. Too much jargon and you quickly lose your audience, not enough and they may be insulted. How do we, as scientists and communicators, reach the perfect balance?

In this Nature column, Trevor Quirk urges science writers not to shy away from jargon, suggesting that important shades of meaning are lost when we do. Quirk underlines his belief in the importance of jargon thus:

When writers avoid jargon unquestioningly, readers start to think that it serves no purpose. The world increases in complexity every day, and we should not let shrink our capacity to describe it.

In contrast to the more absolute statements from Quirk’s piece, two amazing science writers, Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer, make great points about the need for balance when using jargon here and here. Says Yong,

Filling prose with jargon, and failing to consider the all-important audience, ensures that you lose the battle before you’ve even published a pixel. Nobody has ever felt obliged to read. Don’t give them reasons to stop.

So as I continue to teeter between the assumption that my audience can understand the language I use and pedantically explaining the heck out of the science, I will also continue to be thankful for hearing great examples of science communication like Dr. Fire’s Discovery Lecture.

From the “It’s funny ’cause it’s true” category

Goodness, I had fun (and spent a lot of time) today on the Twitterz. If you haven’t already, check out #overlyhonestmethods. As far as I can tell, the original idea for this amazing hashtag concept goes to @dr_leigh. Tons of scientists and science-associated folks joined in, and the results are absolutely amazing.  #overlyhonestmethods has been storified here, but I also wanted to share a few of my favorites:

Joe Palca

One of the good things about still being in grad school is that I have access to the calendar of invited speakers.  Lucky for me, Joe Palca, NPR’s science correspondent, gave a Discovery Lecture at Vanderbilt on October 25.  I was interested to hear him speak, but also to see who turned up to fill the audience.  The entire biomedical community is invited to the Discovery Lecture Series, which means that I am just as likely to sit next to a white-haired and -coated oncologist as to another graduate student.  Joe Palca as invitee was slightly unorthodox, and I was uncertain whether any of my scientist colleagues would be interested enough to show up.  On occasion, I have encountered the belief on the part of scientists that journalists willfully get the story wrong and thus make the scientists look foolish.  I was, therefore, pleased to see the lecture hall fill up, and settled in for a fun talk.

The problem with reporting science, according to Joe, is twofold.  First, most science stories come with necessary vocabulary, in a way that very little other news does.  He used football as an example here and played a newscast of himself explaining Superbowl results with each tiny element defined, just as it would be in a science story.  Boring!  The second problem with reporting science news is that no one knows in advance which stories are going to be important, so timeliness is a true challenge.  Making an example of several Nobel Prizes, he illustrated how little coverage these discoveries (eventually considered by the Nobel committee to be really big deals) received initially.  Because news operates on (increasingly 24/7) news time rather than science time, which can drag on and on, initial discoveries that seem like a they might be a big deal are highlighted too soon and so much that the public loses interest; gene therapy is one example.  By the time science catches up with news, the next big science thing is already all over and no one wants to hear about something they initially heard about years ago.

Because of this twofold problem, the public’s current impression is that scientists are discovering awesome things daily, and while collectively we probably are, no one scientist is discovering something every single day.  What I do as a scientist is confirm what I think are discoveries, which actually involves bucket loads of troubleshooting, waiting, testing, and reevaluating what I think I know.  So rather than reporting news in leapfrog fashion, jumping from one breakthrough to another, and perpetuating the public’s misconception of how science works, Joe has a Big Idea.  He wants to tell stories about the process of science and the delight that comes with learning something that no one ever knew before.

When he started to talk about his Big Idea, the scientists in the audience got a little twitchy.  Joe spotted them twitching and said that he knows that scientists sometimes feel uncomfortable with making science about the people doing it rather than about the science itself (perhaps because here another chance exists to make scientists look foolish).  His answer to this discomfort is that his job as a communicator is to intrigue people enough with the stories of the scientific process and the scientists that his readers or listeners want to go forth and learn about the science themselves, shifting responsibility for understanding science to the public.  After Joe helped the audience that he wants the same thing that they want (people to care about their research), the room relaxed again.

Going forward, Joe’s Big Idea has serious merit, and as an aspiring communicator, I love the idea of telling a different kind of story.  Journalists and scientists could operate on the same time scale and work together to communicate engaging science in which everyone wants to take ownership.