Keep Calm and Be A Scientist
As an introvert, I dread communicating with anyone other than my cat. Overcoming that fear has been driven by my recent desire for science communication. In many cases, a conversation can become really annoying when people keep asking questions that you don’t have the answer for or don’t want to answer, such as “when are you getting married?” while they know too well that you are single and in your 30s, or “what do you want to do?” when you have just graduated from high school. In my past experience, I have encountered many moments when the conversation grifting to unwelcome direction about my career goal.
Growing up with high achievers in my family, my relatives have set an abnormally high expectation for my life and constantly check in with me to make sure I am on the right track. My aunt graduated with double majors and second highest GPA of the school. And she always encourages me to achieve my education. Therefore, I always have a goal in mind of finishing college and getting a Ph.D.
During my time in community college, I have decided to move away from medical field and focus more on understanding mechanisms of cell biology after taking Cellular and Molecular Biology class with an inspiring instructor. Also at that time, I was a very bashful person. I always prefer to stay in a peaceful corner of the class to study and mind my own business. Engaging in a long conversation is not my favorite thing to do, but one time I find myself in one of those conversations with a super friendly extrovert. She asked me about my classes, what I do and what I study. I decided to tell the truth for it is the easiest option, so I told her that I was studying cellular and molecular biology. The next part was interesting; she said “oh”, turned around and walked away. I was pretty sure she wasn’t angry with my answer, she just didn’t know what to say next.
After that incident, I have continued my path of studying biology and surrounded myself with scientists. One of my roommates majored in Biochemistry and another one in Neuroscience, so we had a lot of common topics to talk about, such as classes, instructors, projects, research...etc. Gradually, I cocooned myself in the scientific world and forgot there is a bigger world full of non-scientists.
When I entered into the working environment as a chemist, I have met many people with different background. They are preacher, writer, actors, comedian, IT associate,..etc. Interacting with them reminds me that there are many people who do not understand the difference between biology and chemistry, or biological science and biotechnology. Recently, during a casual conversation with a couple who works in the church that I attend frequently, they asked about what I do for a living and I told them that I work in a biotech company. They responded, “it means literally nothing to me”. And it started a thoughtful conversation about biotech and the industry.
Reflecting on these previous experiences I have been obsessed with science communication. It slowly dawned on me that people are intimidated by certain words, such as science, scientist, chemistry, biologist, biotechnology, mass spectrometers, chromosome, nucleus, cell biology,..etc. Just a mention of these words is enough to shut a person away, mainly because they don’t understand what those words mean. It is very hard to keep up with a conversation if one person in the group is missing a vital piece of information, and they will feel left out in the group because they have nothing to contribute to the conversation.
I can relate to the feeling. My female cousins are well versed in beauty tips and make-up materials while I, on another hand, have no clue about the difference between concealer and liquid lipstick. Therefore, during family gathering, I can’t participate when my cousins exchange different brands of eyeliner and discuss excitingly about new hair style for the spring. But I would definitely be more interested to chip into the conversation if they educated me on the topic.
Therefore, I think it is important for scientists to inform the public about their work instead of using short jargon to describe their profession. Just like my conversation with the previous couple, even though we had a rough start, it turned out to be a good topic to discuss why somebody would want to become a scientist. I think, instead of starting of the conversation with “I am a cell biologist”, one could say that “I study human diseases”. An open ended answer is more intriguing than a conclusive one. I apply this new approach in my daily interactions with different people by asking what that person does for a living instead of who they are, since I am looking for a long answer. And when it is my turn, I start off vague and slowly go into details. The conversation becomes more bearable with the new approach. I find myself more opening to casual talk with strangers and less awkwardly avoiding the specific question. Indeed, to get out of an unwanted conversation, I can say that I am a scientist. However, a better answer would be an engaging description of what I am passionate about, what my dream is, what I do to achieve that dream. And an unwanted conversation will become an interesting one.