Sometimes I think about what it would have been like if I had chosen a different job. Had I picked another career, a non-science career, what would life look like right now? Some things wouldn’t be very different at all. I would still have a snack drawer in my work desk, regardless of whether it was in an elementary school or in a press room. My days would still be punctuated by finely calibrated breaks during which I unbutton the top of my pants for a few minutes, a little gift to myself. I would still try to bring baked goods to meetings of all levels of importance (Madame President, the situation in Mosul is dire, but these brownies should help!).
But if I hadn’t gone into science, I imagine the most different thing would be not having to explain what my job actually is every time it comes up. How often does a nurse get asked “what do you mean ‘nurse’”? How regularly does an accountant get quizzical looks after bantering introductions over cocktails? Unless that accountant brings his pet bird to drinks, this never happens!
Most people have jobs folks have heard of, and their jobs entail tasks and ideas to which many people can relate. When I say I do scientific research, there’s usually the initial “Oh, my, well isn’t that interesting” or the “Ooh girl, yaas, get it” response, depending on the person I’m talking to. When I get into explaining that I focus on ecosystems and biogeochemistry, I tend to get the “bio-geo-what-now?” or the (sucks teeth) “well damn!” response, again, depending on my interlocutor. At this point, the discussion of my job is fully over, and someone has already brought up an episode of RadioLab that everyone already heard, or someone has managed to make a tenuous artificial intelligence connection to my mention of science, leading to a swift Westworld segue. Now, I’m mostly fine with this because it’s entertaining to discuss all the podcasts that have come to form our collective consciounesses (millenials, amiright?), and Westworld is bomb, though I’m personally saving it for a future binge afternoon. I’m convinced, though, that if people weren’t confused or overwhelmed, and sometimes even weird and cagey, at the mere mention of science, some solid conversations could take place. And, admittedly, if I could be less ham-handed at explaining what biogeochemistry is, that conversation would last past my first drink.
This got me to thinking about analogies, and how they work really well for everything else. Literature and poetry have had wild monopoly on this for a while (Metaphor! Simile! We get it, jeez!). But advertising also employs analogy to make usually ludicrous claims (chewing certain brands of gum literally never makes you feel like you are snowboarding, believe me). Scientists act like they’ve never heard analogies before, and instead choose to explain what they do in the most literal and unrelatable ways to general audiences. Tucked into this problem is the fact that jargon terms that mean the same thing as normal words feel like caffeine; saying them makes you feel pleasant but then later kind of disoriented (another analogy that lets on too much about my personal life). I imagine that plumbers refer to broken toilets as “broken toilets”, especially when an impatient party is paying for their time. Plumbers are doing it right!
Here are some pointers and resources that have helped me focus on using analogy and keeping it simple when explaining scientific ideas:
One time, when I was 15 years old and considering a (more lucrative?) career in acting and screenwriting, my class took a trip to have a master class with a REAL ACTOR. He was none other than Chris Sarandon, who is the brother of, yes, Susan Sarandon. Having watched his most notable film Fright Night in preparation for my brush with fame, I was pretty sure Chris Sarandon would be a sexy spooky vampire, in addition to being mildly famous. Fifteen year old me was extremely concerned with impressing him. In the end, Chris Sarandon was not sexy (I’m lyin’, he was), spooky or interested in turning my classmates into vampires. He was just a nice older man who encouraged me to break into screenwriting. This past week, I had a similar experience with scientist, advocate for women in science and non-vampire Dr. Sasha Reed of the US Geological Survey. Despite my nervousness about meeting such a superstar, talking with her was so refreshing and uplifting, two things I’ve almost never felt upon meeting a fancy scientist.
Sasha is a biogeochemist who thinks about how global environmental change will alter ecosystem function via terrestrial nutrient cycling. She’s drawn to the Earth’s extremes, so her study sites range from the wet tropical forests of Puerto Rico and Hawaii to the aridlands of the American west. Her publication record is poppin’ and the amazing range of her expertise is almost enough to make me turn off Grey’s Anatomy and start exploring new areas of the literature (almost). On top of all that, she was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2011 by President Obama, so you know she’s doing something right.
I've been happily plodding along, hopeful and unaware, towards what I thought would be my first published paper. It's nothing big, nothing earth-shattering, but it's mine (and a few other people's), and I've been working at it for so goddamn long (relative to the rest of my life). But it recently occurred to me, halfway through the process of responding to reviewer comments, that my data may be have been misrepresented by the statistical analyses I used. Misrepresented. I'm going to let you sit with that for a minute because it took me over an hour to move past this fact. My interpretations and conclusions in my already-peer-reviewed paper might be bullshit, and this alters the message of the paper I've already submitted.
I sat in my office nearly the entire day, hardly moving, rapidly typing, deleting and retyping R code to try and figure out where things went wrong. By the end of the day I was exhausted, hella cranky, and still wanting for answers. More than anything, I was worried about what the senior scientist with whom I'm collaborating would think. We were 3 days away from our resubmission deadline, my conclusions had suddenly seemed as valid as a snowball on the Senate floor, and I was unable to decide whether to press on or retract the questionable data.
Though the other two problems still exist, the last one is no longer an issue. It took me a few minutes of hand-wringing and light whining to realize that I can't publish something that I doubt. I'm disappointed with the current situation, but I'm coming away with a lesson in science ethics. You just don't put something out unless you're data say it's true. As for my paper, she will eventually see the light of day, but I need to do a bit more tinkering before her debut. I'm trying to think of it as progress, not failure.
To document interesting ideas about science and nature and reflect on the experience of being a scientist from the margins.