process of getting my Masters of Science degree at a well-respected institution. My thesis is based on
original scientific research and I consider myself a scientist.
Actually, that’s all I’ll say for now, because that’s all you need to know to answer my next question,
which is: if you had to draw me, what would I look like? Also consider, where am I standing? What am I
wearing? What am I doing?
(Take a moment to ponder this. I’ll wait. There are pictures of cats on the internet that require my
Ok, so let me guess: I was wearing a lab coat, wasn’t I? Maybe holding a pipette, standing in front of
fancy looking beakers and such? Oh, and I was probably a guy. With bad hair and maybe even a slightly
crazy facial expression.
Well, hate to break it to you, but you’re all wrong. (Gotcha!) Not just about me in particular, but about
the majority of scientists. As it turns out, the average public has a very specific view of “science”
and “scientists.” To investigate this phenomenon, researchers came up with the “Draw a Scientist Test”
(DAST), which is basically what I just asked you to do, except with pen and paper instead of solely your
imagination. (Like any good scientist, I’ll provide data to back up my claim – here’s an example of a DAST
But like I said, you were probably wrong about me and you’re not the only one. So let me break
down a couple common stereotypes about science and scientists. There are more misconceptions/
preconceptions than these, but since this is a blog post, not a dissertation, I’ll stick to a few basic ones:
1) Science is always conducted in a laboratory.
This isn’t true, for many reasons. For example, part of my research, the actual collecting samples part, is
conducted out at sea. (I didn’t mention that part, did I? Surprise!) In my field, ecology, data collection is
predominantly an outdoor activity. In fact, a lot of disciplines under the broad umbrella of “science” take
place outside a laboratory; the image of a scientist as someone wearing a lab coat and gazing pensively
through a microscope or expertly wielding a pipette applies to only a small portion of “scientists.” Even
then, I guarantee that those scientists don’t spend all their time in an actual laboratory. Which leads
me to a point that some of you may find depressing: most science takes place at a desk. I’m sorry to
dispel your illusions, but the majority of a scientists’ time is spent slogging through data. Consider my
life: every month, I spend maybe three days out in the field collecting samples with my lab, four days
sorting and identifying organisms (yes, I do use a microscope!) and the rest of the time working with
spreadsheets. In fact, I spend most of my time working with a huge data set collected over a couple
months back in 2010. That’s two YEARS ago and people are STILL working on it. Which leads me to the
2) Scientific tools are pipettes, microscopes, beakers, and other such “science-y” equipment.
Sure, this is partially true, but again, this only applies to specific disciplines and even they spend only a
minority of their time working with these tools. I spent one summer working on nutrient analysis, and
let me tell you, I felt super science-y in my lab coat, handling acid and such, using all kinds of “classic”
science equipment. But after one day in the lab, I’d have a bunch of data and I’d spend the rest of the
week (or month) analyzing that data. This becomes even more pronounced the higher up the academic
ladder you climb. My office mate (yes, I have an office, weeee!) recently commented that being in grad
school feels less like science and more like learning computer programs. That’s not far off the mark:
in the past year, I’ve had to learn four (count ‘em, FOUR) new programs to help me with mapping/
interpreting/analyzing data. I spend the majority of my time in front of my computer, using these
programs to (attempt to) transform my data into something meaningful.
Because what does raw data (collected with “science!” tools) actually mean? Nothing helpful, that’s for sure. Scientists spend most of their time on analysis and interpretation because those are the big questions. (“What does it all mean?!”) And although this analysis and interpretation most often occur outside of a laboratory, using “non-traditional” science equipment, the general public has the image of scientists as laboratory-dwelling geniuses. Which brings me to the final (for this post, at least) preconception:
3) Scientists are only the elite; science is intimidating and a non-scientist couldn’t possibly understand it. Don’t even try.
Let me begin by saying that variations on this preconception are well established in the scientific education literature: “science” appears hard, cold, and very much out of reach for many people. This simply isn’t true, but the perceived inaccessibly of science is extremely widespread and ultimately damaging: if we can’t get kids interested in science at a young age because they’re scared off, they’re going to miss out on something amazing. And it’s not just kids we need to worry – most members of the voting public have only a rudimentary (and often inaccurate) understanding of science. With the politicization of science and the debate over “policy-neutral science” (topics which are worthy of another blog post or twenty), being science-savvy is becoming a requirement for being a well-informed citizen.
But back to me: I truly believe that science can be for anybody and everybody can do science! Science is fun! (And you get to wear lab coats!)
For those of you who have been paying attention, right about now you may be thinking “Gee, mixed messages much? You just told me that science is boring computer work in an office and now you want me to believe it’s all a good time in a lab coat? You can’t have it both ways.” My answer is: Yes you can! It’s ALL science!
As it turns out, nature is incredibly complex and multifaceted (surprise!) and in order to investigate this complicated earth, we have a hundred different types of science and just as many types of scientists. Science is beakers and microscopes, but it’s also computer programs and spreadsheets, tromping through forests and spending months at sea. Science is all around us. And it takes all different disciplines (ecology, geology, physics, biochemistry, genetics, oceanography, etc. – I could literally fill pages with scientific disciplines and sub-disciplines) to make sense of what we see around us.
From my perspective, this third preconception exists because of the first two preconceptions: most people simply aren’t cognizant of the fact that science is more than beakers and lab coats and scientists are found in all kinds of places – in a lab, in the field, in a classroom, in an office building. Furthermore, while science used to be reserved for the “elite” (read: upwardly mobile white males), those days are pretty much gone. My program and my lab are dominated by women. (Of which I am one, surprise!) Institutions put a lot of effort into recruiting minority groups and outreach efforts are often designed specifically for underserved populations. These days, if you have a passion for science, there are endless opportunities to get involved, whether it’s through traditional classes and internships or through citizen science projects. Science is much “friendlier” (for lack of a better term) than most people realize and most scientists are more than willing to reach out and demonstrate this.
So please, next time you meet a scientist, don’t ask “Where’s your lab coat?” (It gets old.) And don’t assume that if a person doesn’t work on what you consider “science,” he or she isn’t a “real” scientist. (True story: during a community outreach activity, I had a kid tell me she wasn’t interested in hearing about my work in benthic invertebrate communities because she was only interested in “real” marine science: “like whales and stuff.” As if the only things going on in the ENTIRE OCEAN are whale-related.) Instead, ask about that person’s research, what he or she does during an average day. More often than not, the answer may surprise you.
- Your Friendly Neighborhood Scientist