December 19, 2010

Explaining nature to those who don't study it intensely.

An increasingly urgent and new job of practicing scientists (and not just our representatives who are journalists or the PR department of a university or professional society) is to explain our work to people in the general public who's money we use to further human knowledge. 

I can speak to the fact that it's hard when I get asked by family/friends "how are the plants?"...that's such a broad question and I struggle to explain how my research is going without getting the blank stare back. I understand this to some extent, they're not molecular biologists, don't tend to think of biological organisms as machines that are capable or adaptation and interact in a very dynamic way with their environment like us researchers do. I can also say it's the wrong question to ask- "What have you been doing?" strikes me as a better question to ask a scientist. Asked that way, I feel I can better explain some of the experiments I'm doing in terms that might be more understandable- though it does get complicated when explaining some of the tools I use in my work too.
But I guess when I get asked "how are the plants?" I'll do my best to explain what I've been up to in the lab (and perhaps tell some other stories from the literature that I  find fascinating). It's something we as scientists are going to have to get better at- our work is important- maybe not immediately, but in the long run, innovation and invention drive the economy and provide us with all the great products we enjoy in modern life.

December 12, 2010

Experimental failures.

I know that science is riddled with failed experiments, many of which are actually informative (and some great discoveries were made through "mistakes"), though mostly unpublishable. I take most experiments that don't seem to work out actually pretty hard- especially ones where it's hard to conclude much from except that I've messed up somehow. The pressure to make progress and get results is intense, not to mention the expensive nature of many experiments these days and the focus on the short term grant cycle vs. long term arcs that larger scientific stories and progress tend to take. I'm not sure how to deal with all of this very well. I can go back and try an experiment again of course, I can not be a hyper-perfectionist, and I am really working on trying to enjoy the process of science and rise above the stress of it all. All easier said than done, of course. I know science is of vital importance, but the practice of it is often highly psychologically stressful.