We Are Scientists

Posted: 05 12, 2015

“And what do you do?”

 

“Oh, we’re scientists.”

 

This conversation drifted across the room to where I was quietly sitting on my yoga mat, waiting for class to start. Despite my normal routine of avoiding unnecessary eye contact, as one does when you don’t make it to class frequently enough to be one of the regulars, I looked up to see who had made this declaration. It was two women in their late-20s to early-30s. Further eavesdropping revealed that one was a grad student, the other a post-doc. One was a mom. And both considered themselves to be scientists.

 

However, as a fourth year graduate student in neuroscience, I did not yet consider myself to be a scientist – rather, a scientist-in-training. I still had days when experiments didn’t work, analysis code threw errors four lines in, and for the life of me, I couldn’t remember if the brain had 100 million or 100 billion neurons. I clearly couldn’t fill these shoes or place myself next to the great minds who hold this title. But if that was the case, when would I become a full-fledged scientist?

This brief exchange stayed in my mind throughout class (maybe if I made it to class more regularly, I’d actually be able to just focus on my breathing), and sparked a paradigm shift. There is no official vetting process that makes one a scientist. There probably isn’t even a single point when someone definitively becomes a scientist. Rather, being a scientist means you have developed skills to approach questions using a certain framework. At some point, we learned that this framework is called the scientific method. Putting terminology aside, the essence of being a scientist means constantly asking questions about how something works, and then, in a controlled manner, working to disentangle processes in order to slowly piece together what is happening in the world.

 

When broken down into these facts, I realized that this is exactly what I do day-in and day-out. Applying rational thought, which is so integral to science, this by definition made me a scientist. This begged the question, or perhaps it was my scientist mind that just wanted to go the next step: who else is a scientist?

stand back i'm going to try science

This figure was made by Randall Munroe of XKCD Webcomics.

I would now argue that many people, regardless of what their official job title may be, think about problems from a scientific perspective, and thus can be considered scientists. We have now reached an era when the CVs of members of a biomedical research group exhibit eclectic specializations, including – but not limited to – biology, medicine, physics, chemistry, psychology, computer science, engineering, business, and philosophy. Each of these individuals can be a scientist. With ever-growing technological advances and the investigation of more complex questions, it is the specialized training from these disciplines combined with utilization of the overall scientific framework which makes scientific progress possible.
A market analyst might engage in business, but there is no prerequisite to understand all business models or have been a multi-million dollar entrepreneurial success. So why had I created a comparable hurdle for becoming a scientist? Instead, being a scientist is about the process: learning how to think, how to ask, how to test. Being a scientist is about not being content with “that’s just the way it is.”

 

by Kristin Sellers

 

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This article by Kristin Sellers was co-published on the SWAC Blog, The Pipettepen: http://swac.web.unc.edu/thepipettepen/

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