The lab coat and lone genius – science’s most infuriating stereotypes

Television typically portrays researchers as lab coat-wearing weirdos who hate social interactions, however the secret is collaboration plus hoodies. We have to get higher at displaying the general public what we do, says Chanda Prescod-Weinstein


| Columnist

11 May 2022

An Asian, a black and a white female scientist are in a laboratory wearing typical white lab clothes. They are discussing their research surrounded by files and computers. One of them is holding a clipboard.

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I AM an individual who likes issues to be particular and correct. In some methods, that is antithetical to being a communicator of science to normal audiences. This requires serving to non-experts perceive advanced concepts – like the thought of quantum fields – whereas deploying solely a small fraction of the language we professionals use to speak amongst ourselves. It means glossing over particulars that may really feel essentially vital. Which is to say that I commonly should grapple with what it means to speak to folks about one thing once I know I’m not going to provide them the total story.

I discover it simpler to achieve success in writing. Here, I can select my phrases rigorously, and the “optics” of the work I’m making an attempt to get throughout are what I handle to evoke within the reader’s thoughts.

By distinction, one in every of my greatest frustrations is with how science is portrayed on tv. There, it looks as if a manufacturing mandate to have flashy graphics and representations of “what scientists do” that align with public expectations. The consequence? We get loads of illustration of individuals (typically white males) in white lab coats, though many (maybe most?) scientists don’t put on a lab coat of any sort, ever.

For theoretical physicists, the expectation is that we’ll have a chalkboard crammed with equations. For some folks that’s correct, however I dislike the texture of chalk on my fingers. I a lot desire writing with a fountain or gel pen in a high-quality, certain pocket book.

Part of what finally ends up being so off in popularisations of science is that we proceed to get varied variations of the lone genius: somebody sitting at their desk or working at a chalkboard alone, pondering vital ideas.

The actuality is that – as an introvert – I want I bought extra time alone. My days are crammed with conferences. Every single member of my darkish matter and neutron star analysis group has at the very least one per week with me that’s centred on their primary analysis query. There is a member of my group who sees me in a gathering between two and 5 occasions every week. One of these is my group assembly, the place everybody comes collectively and shares what they’ve achieved for the reason that earlier week. They take turns asking one another questions. This permits us all to be taught extra and hone our question-asking abilities, which is vital for scientists.

I’ve different common appointments which may appear peripheral and even boring – together with to the individuals – however which are fairly vital to the doing of science. These are the conversations through which we’re planning for the long run, navigating making use of for grant cash or lobbying for extra grant cash to be allotted in order that our self-discipline is sustained sooner or later. Right now, I’m spending loads of time on the delayed Snowmass 2021 Particle Physics Community Planning Process.

This happens about as soon as a decade, and includes the US particle physics neighborhood getting collectively to find out what science on this area is believable within the coming years and what experiments – perhaps a brand new particle collider, perhaps a brand new telescope centered on darkish matter – needs to be constructed. The prolonged report we produce will likely be learn by a government-appointed group that can decide what may be funded for the following decade or so. Participating on this course of is time-consuming and doesn’t instantly advance my analysis, however it’s also a key a part of my job.

Ultimately, science is a collaborative enterprise, maybe extra so than every other space of educational endeavour. We depend upon others to get our work completed and work together quite a bit with different folks, however, once more, I don’t assume that is properly represented on tv.

Instead, we get stereotypes of weirdos who can’t deal with social interactions, when in actual fact we’re a group of weirdos who navigate social interactions simply effective as a result of our jobs depend upon it.

Our work can be typically messy. I don’t simply imply that we argue, although we do. It can be the case that we regularly don’t assume in fairly footage. I want we may present the general public extra typically what our work truly appears like, in order that we may assist folks perceive what we truly do. At a time when anti-intellectualism passes for a mainstream political place, now greater than ever, we’d like the general public to be tuned into how our enterprise truly works.

Plus, in my nook of science, hoodies are a extra commonplace uniform than lab coats. Shifting stereotypes about how scientists look may assist youthful folks see themselves in us, to grasp that we’re on a regular basis folks, identical to them. I perceive the need to decorate issues up for a little bit of Hollywood drama, however I don’t assume now we have to strive so onerous to make science appear thrilling. What issues is ensuring we’re in a position to clarify why it’s thrilling. That is the onerous half, and I gained’t all the time succeed, however I do get pleasure from making an attempt.

Chanda’s week

What I’m studying
I completed Sara Nović’s novel True Biz in a single sitting, and discovered loads of deaf historical past, together with why American Sign Language is so totally different from the British model.

What I’m watching
Baseball season is again, and I bleed Dodger blue.

What I’m engaged on
Wrapping up a paper with colleagues on the distinctive constructions made by a hypothetical darkish matter particle, the axion.

  • This column seems month-to-month. Up subsequent week: Graham Lawton

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