Monday, September 20, 2010

Mad Scientist

One Friday afternoon I was driving around when I caught Science Friday with Ira Flatow on NPR. I usually feel like Ira’s on my side—science can be interesting even to non-scientists. Imagine my feelings of betrayal when I heard this exchange on his program.

Vincenzo Natali was describing his new movie “Splice” in which the main characters, scientists, decide to splice together human and animal DNA. Shockingly, the experiment goes horribly wrong. Natali says of his main characters, “While they are quite brilliant and they fully understand the chemical building blocks of life, they don’t have a full appreciation of what life is. They lived a very sequestered, hermetic kind of existence in their lab.” Groan.

SPLICE: Movie Trailer. Watch more top selected videos about: Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley

Oh wait, it gets worse. A caller comments on the movie, “I wonder what the relationships are of the researchers in real life. I wonder if they’re not cold and clinical in their real life.”

And the worst part is that no one, not even Ira, defended scientists, explaining that they are normal people, too! How could you do this to us, Ira?

Somehow, scientists have gotten a bad reputation for not being able to interact in normal social situations. But are we really any different than other Americans?

• Scientists work hard, often more than a 40-hour workweek. Not to worry though, there is a lot of social interaction in a lab (and much more than at the desk jobs I’ve worked).
  • Scientists have bosses who forget how long it takes to complete a project and wanted it done yesterday.
  • Scientists have office mates who gossip near the water cooler and leave weird things in the refrigerator.
  • Scientists “talk shop”, just like lawyers referencing cases, brokers naming stocks, or mechanics discussing car parts.
  • Amazingly, scientists have normal relationships. Somehow, we’ve convinced someone to like us.
Adam Ruben wrote a post in Science recently about the caricature of science much more humorously than I can. Oh, Adam Ruben, you crack me up! (PS, he’s a scientist AND he’s funny!)

This misrepresentation is clearly a widespread problem. But, what’s a scientist to do about it? We have to change our image. My first suggestion is to get out of the lab and socialize with non-scientists (happy hour with your coworkers in between PCR runs doesn’t count). Have fun, talk, laugh--especially when you realize that most people can’t even tell that you’re a scientist.

What else would you suggest?

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