Saturday, May 8, 2010

I am scientist. Hear me think!

We all think that scientists have crazy hair, wear lab coats and are geniuses. Looking at myself, 2 of 3 ain't bad; genius I am not. Is crazy hair and being insanely smart to the point of social-awkwardness really what makes a scientist?

Lynds and I often chat about what it means to be a scientist. Lynds has just finished her PhD, and I am heading towards the end of mine (in a 'how-long-is-a-piece-of-string way). Lynds often discusses scientific life, and stereotypes on her blog. One day she pointed out that many of us pursuing scientific careers aren't necessarily that intelligent, just have strong interests. This is very true and it got me thinking about why are we suitable to do a PhD in the first place, and what makes us scientists.

If we look into peer-review or Google for what makes a scientist, we find ideas such as; ability to question things, productivity through peer-reviewed literaturebalancing efficiency and enjoyment,  ability to be impartial, observant and diligent. The list goes on. Yahoo had some terrible answers to this question, including being smart, having good grades, 'being good at science... whatever that means', being good at maths etc.  This only negatively portrays scientists as being smart geeks, rather than someone who pursues knowledge and answers. But what really makes a scientist and who are they?

Do these people look like Scientists to you?

On a walk a few weeks ago, I was thinking of all my scientist friends, my partner and my supervisors. I realised that there are several attributes that we all have in common: 

Curiosity: For most scientists, the thing that drives us is our curious natures. We ask questions like: Why does that work? How does it work? How can i make that work better? Asking questions of everything is what scientists do. It drives education, passion and ideas.

Passion: Like Lynds suggested, we all have a strong interest in something academic. This leads us to wanting to learn more about it, and in some ways pursue a career in that direction. However, it doesn't just stop at 'keen-interest', but devours us in passionate rants and love for the science. Blogging, teaching, pursuing ideas when others disagree, all demonstrate a love and a passion for the art of science.

Creativity and Problem Solving = Idea: Scientists are faced with questions, and to answer these questions we use logical thinking and bursts of creativity! We sit and think about problems and list ways to solve them: problem solving/logic. For example, if you want to make your car more powerful, you would list ways that you could do this. We then work out how this would actually work and in what form: creativity. Working out exactly how to make it your car more powerful may require some creativity, like adapting a part to suit your car. Putting your solutions together with your creative method gives you an idea.

A-Ha Moments: Ideas may come in a 'a-ha!' moment. One of my supervisors, Dr John Field, was recently explaining to our Honours Student that the answers won't come easily. Good answers and good ideas come a 2pm while having a bath; moments when you mull life and information. For me, most of these moments are in my sleep, in the shower, before I go to bed, and sometimes just when hanging out with friends (that is why I seem to day dream or pull out my phone and viciously type notes, sorry). Those moments could transpire into a new idea, new way of thinking, new technology or add to the body of scientific work; something original or different.

Synthesis and Execution of Ideas: Once you have come up with a list of ideas, you need to try them out. Learning about all sorts of random stuff, being able to pull it together and they try it out is a lot harder than you think. You have to be organised, rational, logical and pragmatic. It can be terribly boring doing the same thing 500 times in the pursuit of the answer. However you need to try your ideas (in a robust manner) before you can say you have found an answer to a problem.

Persistence and Perseverance: Things go wrong and perseverance and persistence is needed in executing ideas. Angus blew up one of his newly-made inventions the other day by putting through the wrong voltage. We spent the morning looking for new components so he can build it again. When failure happens, and it will, you have to be able to keep on pursuing the idea, keep trying or work out how to modify the problem/solution to try and get it to work. Sheer will-power, crossed with passion and creativity will make you persevere the answer.
Continual Learning: A scientist never stops learning, and you have to admit that early into a scientific life. You will always be challenged with new thoughts and ideas.  John has lectured throughout my education about continuous learning in science. It is natural for a scientist to be curious and to want to learn, and natural for others to challenge your ideas with counter learnings. When you are a teaching scientist, like John, you not only learn about things you have been researching, but your students will also challenge you with new ideas and thoughts. Constantly building knowledge, and putting the puzzle together will only bring on more ideas, and more chance of a-ha moments!

Humble, but Confident: The most humble person I know is Australia's leading research scientist in Fire Ecology, Dr Malcolm Gill. You would not think that Malcolm was a leading researcher when you met him. He is softly spoken, open to ideas, and curious. However, he is also confident in his ideas. You have to be humble and understand that there is so much more to know, but also communicate your ideas how how they can be incorporated in the pursuit of answers.

I am a scientist!

Forget about wacky geniuses! The girl (or guy) next door could be a scientist. You could be a scientist! It isn't about intelligence, how good we are at math or appearance that makes us a scientist. It is the way we think about things that allows us to have a scientific career. We may not be geniuses, but we do come up with some pretty cool ideas and our reward is discovering or inventing something new.

I would love to hear more ideas about what you thinks makes a scientist. Drop me an idea in the Comments below.


  1. This is such a great post! I have never come across a better description of a scientists. Hence I can say with confidence that I am no longer a Scientists as I no longer have the energy to persist and persevere and have lost all confidence... some times when you dream very high the fall can break your back

  2. Thanks, C.

    However, I think perserverance, persistence and confidence comes and goes.

    Sarah suggested that our supervisors nag us to the point of getting things done. We need others in our life to help support our wacky dreams. Without praise, 'a pat on the back', guidance, support, encouragement, it is hard for any one to continue doing anything. We need our families, partners and supervisors to at least tell us once in a while that we are smart and we are heading in the right direction, otherwise it can be hard to see the path ahead.

  3. That's a great list. Perhaps another thing that could be added is luck... but there is also a lot we can do to make our own luck. To get an actual research career in science seems bloody difficult - there are way fewer research positions than there are PhDs. It depends on things like contacts, who you know and who knows you, the reputation of your supervisor, being in the right place at the right time, studying something that's a 'sexy topic' - but a lot of those things you can do your best to influence, like picking the right supervisor to start with and making contacts at conferences. But ultimately, there's simply not enough jobs for everyone who wants to be a research scientist, so people miss out.

    I am also wondering about your last point - humble but confident. I definitely agree with the confident - it's something I need to work on. But the 'humble'... MG started his career in an earlier era and I wonder if these days, with the lack of jobs and stiff competition, it's actually the un-humble that do better... on a similar theme, a willingness to work too much is also a requirement these days - often at the sacrifice of family and other hobbies. I guess that's the perseverance.

  4. I agree, L. There does seem to be an 'out-of-our-control' side to a science career. Luck, un-humbleness (insert appropriate adjectives) and over working do seem to weigh in and out of our favor. This also really doesn't help things like persistence and perseverance, like C was saying. Often this makes us feel sad and disappointed with the limitation of future paths.

    Although there is little we can do about Lady Luck, perhaps attitude shifts will help the current need for a scientist to have to overwork and be overly opinionated.

    Overworking scientists, like PK or JL, may be at the top of the ladder, but their sanity was a big price to pay. I suppose that this will take some time to change and certainly won't while peer-reviewed literature is the only marker for achievement.

    There is a bit of a double-edge sword when it comes to outspoken scientists. Whilst I agree that it seems to be the way to get funding and work, there is a difference between those that are seemingly over-opinionated and those that are just good at networking. I have had first hand experience with both types of scientists.

    When I worked in the pubic service, the attitude and ideas from a high-level research ecologist were forced into my daily work. However, these opinions were not practical in terms of on-ground management. The academic refused to budge on their position, only creating more problems than solutions. This goes against scientific ethos. However, there are some silver-clouds in the science world.

    I met an amazing middle-aged female soil scientist who is very shy and modest, but networks brilliantly! She has come up with some of the most amazing ideas, and is always open to suggestions and thoughts. She has had slow career, building by networking and through her reputation for good science. Whilst her career has been slow and she may never be a Professor, she will be remembered for her excellent science. In that sense, she is at the top!

    The only question now is, when will the funders, government and others also realise the difference between the two type of scientists?

  5. a lot of those things you can do your best to influence, like picking the right supervisor to star