Gal Science: So What Is It You Do? -The Toast

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As The Toast searches for its one true Gal Scientist, we will be running a ton of wonderful one-off pieces by female scientists of all shapes and sizes and fields and education levels, which we are sure you will enjoy. They’ll live here, so you can always find them. Most recently: On the Honeybee and Her Friends and Relations.

It’s a question I get asked with great frequency. Sometimes, it’s a question that’s alarmingly asked when I’m trying to enjoy dinner or a beer and you know, not think about work.

Don’t get me wrong.

999650_10200794435077559_1626810935_nI love my work. But telling people you’re a scientist often provokes a weird sense of curiosity in people. If I said I was a medical device salesperson or government attorney, my business would somehow remain my business. If I said I was a preschool teacher, I might get an “Awwww!” and sleeping dogs would remain asleep, and I could eat my steak in peace, the way Ron Swanson would want to eat his steak.

Now, what I could do is tell them what I DO do. What I do is simple, multifaceted, exciting, and mundane all at the same time. It is simple because I have a singular mission: I am paid to do research in physics. It is multifaceted because, to execute this mission, I have to put on many hats. I have to design experiments, I have to build experiments and consult with machinists, I have to take data, I have to analyze the data, I have to come up with methods to analyze the data, I have to do math, I have to learn chemistry recipes. I have to give presentations about my research at conferences and while visiting other scientists. I have to read the literature, I have to mentor students doing research. I have to write papers and apply for grants. I have to think of new experiments. I have to collaborate with people in my research group and outside of it, and delegate responsibilities. I have to go to meetings and seminars. I have to clean the glassware and keep myself organized. I have to order supplies and I have to set mousetraps. (Technically, the university is supposed to do things like this, but practically, it’s every person for themselves.)

What’s exciting is I get to work with big, fun ideas. I work in the area of soft matter physics. Have you ever wondered if toothpaste is a liquid or solid? Well I try to answer questions like that. One of my experiments involves dropping balls into sand, like when your golf ball hits a sand trap, or a meteorite strikes the ground. Sand is sort of like toothpaste, you can pour it like a liquid, but it also supports your weight like a solid. This weird behavior makes it react in surprising ways to impact.

I get to build things, and get excited when they work. I can write computer code to control a circuit that I’ve also designed and built. The circuit controls the movement of motors in an experiment, which I’ve designed.

I also get to look at how groups of cells move. Groups of cells are similar to sand. They are both collections of things that interact and move together. I often sit down with a really cool video of cell motion and ask what information I can extract from it, and what might information might be useful for future diagnoses.

417165_10100538918724357_350825297_nWhat’s mundane is that sometimes my day is spent filling out reimbursement forms or fixing some bug in a thousand lines of computer code.

It’s hard to communicate all of this information in a conversation without sounding douche-y or self-deprecating. The work is both marvelous and ordinary, but people want you to take a side. So when faced with the “What do you do?” question, I take a deep breath, then I do a sidestep.

I know in my heart and soul that there is much work to be done in the name of spreading the gospel of science. I don my preacher collar and force a smile, hoping there is no broccoli in my teeth.

Rather than telling them about the work, I tell them about the Work. I give a several minute summary of my current projects, a delicate dance given the math-iness of the whole enterprise. I use SAT-level words only and complete sentences. There’s a lot of pausing and asking if they followed me. Depending on my mood and the audience, I have different starting angles. I engage people when they learn that how blood flows is a lot like how traffic flows, or that we’re really far behind in understanding how cancer cells move in groups.

But a surprisingly often response from bright men and women is the mid-explanation, “Teeeeeeeheeeeeee I don’t even know what you’re talking about, that went over my head. I am so bad at science,” which shuts down the conversation.

These reactions are part of the reason I have a love-hate relationship with the “What do you do?” question. I love telling people about the work, but if they aren’t even going to try to understand, I feel like throwing my plate to the ground and walking out. Instead, I usually offer up a “Don’t say you’re bad at science, I was just probably explaining it in an unfamiliar way, I’m a little tired. Let’s try again another time.”

With these experiences in mind, let’s have a few #protips about interacting with a scientist:

  • Remember that many of us are introverted. It can be painful to feel put on the spot to begin with. So if you are genuinely curious, don’t be a dick. And if you aren’t genuinely curious, asking the question is extra-super-dick-y. Conversationally, it’s like faking out a high five.
  • Please don’t treat us like magical, really smart unicorns. About 3% of the US population has a professional degree. Of that slice of the pie, PhDs occupy a third, lawyers a third, and medical doctors less than a third. The rest are vets, dentists, etc. STEM PhDs make up not all, but the majority of PhDs. Add in all of the bachelors and masters-level scientists, and we likely outnumber lawyers (and definitely outnumber MDs). Long story short, there are a lot of us. It’s a long, sad story of why this is somehow an exotic profession, but I can save that for another post. tl;dr Treating us like we are somehow other makes us feel othered. Do not say things like, “Oh, you must be really smart.”
  • Topics that don’t make us feel othered but still address the topic of our quasi-unicorn nature include: the state of public science education, the coverage of science by the news media, and the treatment of science in entertainment.
  • Please do not mention that you love The Big Bang Theory. I will cut you.
  • Yes, I am a lady in science: Again, pointing you back to the othering thing. Don’t mention it unless I mention it. It is indeed an interesting topic, how statistically women are outnumbered in fields such as physics and engineering. (I actually think a lot about this and how to best deal with the sitch.) But my possession of a vagina is not an entry point (ahem) into this thread. Maybe you have stories or have read articles about a similar topic? Maybe this is a boring topic for you, and it’s a knee-jerk reaction to seeing a lady scientist. Let’s find some fun topics.
  • Fun topics: What did you have for lunch today? Did you give a talk today? Were your students happy today? Did you do an experiment today? What is your favorite way of plotting data? Was liquid nitrogen involved in your day? Good or bad hair day and can it be blamed on meteorological factors such as humidity? Corn-shaped candy corn or pumpkin-shaped candy corn, and is there science to back up your argument for one vs the other?

So with that, I shall bid adieu to this post and go eat some candy corn. It is now your mission to go find a scientist to talk to in an appropriate manner. We’re everywhere.

Kerstin is currently a postdoc in Physics at The University of Maryland. When not physics-ing, she enjoys playing rugby, breathing air outside, lifting things, and a good pickle.

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