Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Meet Joe Hanson, Molecular Biologist

Today we're introducing you to Joe Hanson, a graduate student in Dr. Lambowitz's lab at The University of Texas at Austin.

NV: What do you do?

Joe: I’m a graduate student, getting my PhD in cell and molecular biology. I like to say the world of molecular biology is 50% work and 50% waiting. I tell people it’s long periods of boredom interspersed with intense excitement. In between those times you have to occupy your brain while you’re waiting.

NV: How did you get started in advocacy?

Joe: In 2008, during the election, being a young politically-minded person, I found out on Facebook about a group called Scientists and Engineers for America. They were working on a science-related survey for the candidates. They wanted us to focus in on local races. I became the Texas state captain.

Through my unsuccessful attempts dealing with the press and [candidate’s] offices I realized how little the people outside of the science buildings we work in realize how these issues affect them. So now I help put on layperson-friendly Science Pub seminars and I blog and microblog about science research issues.

NV: What motivates you to do outreach/advocacy?

Joe: From a grad student perspective I have a unique approach to this. A desire to educate people outside science. For younger scientists like me, especially in the biological sciences - and there are a lot of us out there - I think it’s important for people to develop these skills, to reach outside the science world. As our job evolves in the future, it won’t involve just the bench. It will involve a lot more of these skills - outreach, communication, advocating for solid science. We need the communication with our elected officials to come from other perspectives like post-doctoral fellows, young professors, and graduate students. Not a lot of young people [are doing that] yet.

NV: What limits your ability to do advocacy?

Joe: Certainly trying to graduate. There’s not a system that really rewards young scientists for doing this kind of thing. These are things we feel are valuable, but we're limited by time. It’s not expected for this to be part of our professional life. There are a lot of demands on our time. We give it a lot of value but it doesn’t translate to our day-to-day work.

NV: Do your colleagues do advocacy and outreach? Why or why not?

Joe: I see very few of them doing it. If anything, among graduate students the echo chamber effect is accentuated. It’s such an insular community, and it gets worse when they talk only to each other. Graduate students are nervous to use any of their time outside of lab for efforts like these. It’s very rare. There are people who attend pub nights, seminars, things like that, but in terms of reaching out beyond scientists it’s unfortunately rare. There’s no reward for people taking part in those things.

NV: What advice would you give to a scientist who is interested in doing outreach or advocacy?

Joe: Get in touch with as many other people who have been doing it as possible in the medium you want to be doing it in. If you want to be online, the worst thing you can do it start a lonely blog that no one knows exists.

If you want to start a seminar or science-for-kids series, there are resources where people have done it before and they’re willing to share ideas. They’re not just faces on the internet, they are willing to share and help. Lots of books and publications by the National Academies and AAAS (like Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Unscientific America, and Don’t be Such a Scientist) lay out what the problems are. It pays to study what people need.

Thank you to Joe for giving his time via phone so we could learn more about him and his advocacy work. Be sure to check out his new blog!

This is part of the ongoing Profiling New Voices series.

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