This morning, a friend and I were discussing writing letters of recommendation for our students and assistants. We both have a love/hate relationship with science, and it’s the hate part that makes us reluctant to endorse it as a career move. “Some of them are good students, and I feel like I’m doing them a disservice by writing them this stellar letter that will get them into the same mess I’m in right now,” she said.
She’s right. Typically, if a student comes to my office hours and says “I want to do a PhD. How do I do it?” I will tell them. I won’t dissuade them. I will, however, probe for the source of their interest. One recently said to me, “I’m really interested in neuro law, and I figure if I don’t get into law school, I’ll just do a PhD and get into it that way.”
WRONG ANSWER. FOR LIKE SEVEN REASONS. I was so bewildered that I didn’t even try to deter them. I didn’t know where to start. So I smiled and nodded. I hope someone else sets them straight the way my philosophy professor did when I told him I wanted to do a PhD in philosophy (“Take a year. Do something else. Anything else. Then see how you feel.” He could smell my undergraduate fear of the “real world” a mile away, and saved me from even more severe financial, mental, and physical ruin than science has wreaked).
On the other hand, if a student says something like, “I really like research,” they’re at least on the right track. There’s always the (huge) risk that their view of research is through an undergrad lens: collecting data for some grizzled post-doc, delivering it on a thumb drive, and heading off to class. No analysis. No hours spent tearing their hair out over code. They don’t know what it’s really like yet. These ones are a “maybe,” though. One of my assistants got to live through some serious failures of mine, and when she asked me for a letter, I informed “to whom it may concern” that if I hadn’t managed to deter her, then she’s definitely proven herself as someone who is comfortable with failure and maybe she’ll actually be OK.
If you have a student that falls in the “maybe” pile, please direct them to this series of interviews entitled “Should I do a PhD.” It’s real talk.
But anyway, I pondered this tension between preaching love of science while quietly struggling with it as I showed people real human brains at Cal Academy of Science’s NightLife. Two days later, I pondered it again at the Bay Area Science Festival‘s Discovery Days at AT&T Park. As I sleepily (it was the day after Halloween, ok) helped children learn to echolocate and chatted with parents and science teachers about neuroplasticity, I asked myself: Why am I doing this? Do I really want that kid to end up like me someday?
I remembered my first science outreach outing as a grad student at Berkeley. I had done volunteer work before, but it had never occurred to me that talking about science could be framed as doing some broader societal good. We talked about brains at a middle school for the children of rich parents. I was immediately turned off. These kids were clearly going to be just fine whether I let them touch a brain or not. “Outreach” was bullshit designed to foster a sense of civic engagement among science nerds. Nobody’s life was changed that day. How disappointing.
Fast forward a couple of years. I did my science, and I
volunteered elsewhere thought about volunteering elsewhere like I used to when I didn’t live in the flakiest place in America, but ne’er the twain did meet again. That is, not until later in my PhD when I started to wonder if I wanted to be a scientist. I liked teaching and talking about science, but had trouble envisioning myself running a lab. I began to engage again with organizations & groups that I thought might help me find an “alternative” career that was right for me. Not super religiously, and not even in a terribly go-getter type way–if you’re a grad student, you don’t have to go far to find someone who’s looking for help with some event. I talked to adorable kids about their projects as a “guest scientist” at their school science fair. I started writing. I volunteered at a conference to spark young girls’ interest in science. I showed brains in schools again–and guess what, they weren’t all rich kids.
Do you know how much science is cut from school curricula these days? It’s a lot. Especially in the schools where the PTA can’t just fund a special science teacher to come a couple days a week. Do you know how overworked teachers are? Also a lot. They love having scientists come, and so do the kids. You’re like the cool, fun aunt who carries buckets of brains around. And that’s just doing the classroom thing. Maybe you hate kids. Fine. Go talk to adults. I can’t tell you how many people at Cal Academy said some form of, “I read there’s a part of the woman’s brain allows them to multitask better.” Do you know how deeply satisfying it was to my black little feminist heart to grab that myth by the neck, wring it out, and replace it with some basic communique on how network analysis works?
So there’s the selfish thing–it’s fun, it reminds you why you were first enchanted by science in the first place, and it reminds you that you’re not worthless, no matter what your publication record says. You do know shit.
More important, though, is what happened in this hellscape of a midterm election. NYT columnist Frank Bruni describes Congress’s relationship with science as one that “toggles between benign neglect and outright contempt.” So, we need to be creating a climate where scientifically gleaned information is valued. One where we aren’t electing people who will say “I’m not a scientist” as though that were some sort of absolution.
I just learned from Bill Bryson’s fantastic book A Short History of Nearly Everything that back when we thought putting lead in things was a great idea (it isn’t; the body can’t excrete it so it accumulates in the bones and blood til you have horrible, horrible hallucinations and are left a “permanent staggering wreck” or dead), Clair Patterson, the guy saying “no stop this is terrible” was basically Tyrone Hayesed. The lead manufacturers were funding all the research saying it was ok, and all of a sudden Patterson couldn’t get funding. He was effectively silenced for most of his career. Although, thanks to Patterson’s persistence, we did get the Clean Air Act of 1970, which was something (ice core studies had shown that there was basically no lead in the environment til we started putting it in gasoline to stop engine knock, and then it was catastrophically in everyone and everything). When they took lead out of gasoline in 1986, lead levels in Americans’ blood dropped by 80%. As recently at 1993, lead solder was still being used in food containers, because lead was big business and no one listened. Moneyed interests can and will keep science, even lifesaving science, out of policy. It happens over and over.
I’m reminded of the moment it clicked for me that science education is voter education. At the Society for Neuroscience meeting in 2012, I went to a talk by my undergraduate neuroscience advisor. It was way up in a remote corner of the conference center, where they put the talks on teaching, not research. SfN is a tightly run ship–I’ve never seen a symposium moderator at this conference actually let a Q&A go over time. And yet, when he was done describing a neuroscience course he taught, the vibe in the room was one of wanting more. The next speaker ceded maybe fifteen minutes of their time just to keep the discussion going. It was nuts.
This course was a neuroscience for non-majors course, co-taught with the aforementioned philosophy professor (the one who talked me out of philosophy as a career, bless him). They made a point to highlight the scientific process, have spirited arguments, read widely from both scientific and philosophical texts. They showed their students that science isn’t a collection of facts but a very human process. It was what I call a “just the marshmallows” approach (Lucky Charms, you guys) to science education. I took a lot of inspiration from this class when I signed on last semester to help out with a “just for fun” class here called Altered States & the Brain.
They weren’t training future scientists, he said, so much as they were educating future voters. Poli sci majors, art majors, English majors–the representation in this class was broad. Which brings me to my point (finally). When you do science outreach, you aren’t necessarily luring future scientists, or trying to make it seem like your job is more fun than it really is. Your jaded brain can rest easy knowing this. You are educating future (or present) voters. You want to send as many people to the polls as possible with an appreciation for what is at stake, how science proceeds, and why we need some damn funding. You want to show them that scientists are people, nice people, who sometimes are full of fun facts but at other times are like, “dang, good question, I really don’t know.” The realization that we scientists are all just flying by the seat of our pants to begin with, and then Congress is basically like “wooooo pants off dance off,” is sobering. Maybe by putting your face out there, you can convince people that there are scientists who aren’t Bill Nye and–whoa–they are even more of an expert than he is on their area of expertise!
That, and I think everyone should hold a human brain at least once in their life. I think it’s got to be right up there with holding a newborn baby, when it comes to gaining a new, mind-blowing appreciation for life.