Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Giant squid and the preeminence of American scientists

Recently, the scientific world has been abuzz with excitement. Japanese scientists have captured the first images of a giant squid. When I first heard about this I was really happy. My research has nothing to do with giant squid, but I know the pain of being unable to examine your subject directly. The benefits of the squid images are enormous. However, the second thought that came into my mind was the fact that these were Japanese scientists. Now, I'd like to state up front that I have nothing against scientists from Japan or anywhere else, and am really excited for whomever makes a discover like this, but I couldn't help but think that in the past that probably would have been an American scientist (okay or maybe Jacques Cousteau).

More and more foreign scientists are publishing excellent work, not surprising considering that at many universities foreign student enrollment accounts for 50% or greater of the total. This is good because as more people move into the game, science will advance at a faster pace. However, I think it is also indicative of a loss of preeminence on the part of American scientists, and that this in part, is a reflection of how American society perceives scientists and engineers. As fewer and fewer of the brightest students choose science and engineering careers, our economy will suffer.

Recently, CNN included academic research scientists as one of the three worst jobs. Scientists are perceived as brainiacs and engineers as uber nerds. The image of the wild-haired, middle-aged, white guy, with a white lab coat and glasses is very much alive. Most people I talk with feel that what I do is exceedingly difficult and that you have to be extremely smart to do it. These kind of stereotypes make it difficult to entice others into the field. Additionally, compensation for this "hard" work is exceedingly low. At my Ph.D. institution, the Nobel laureate in physics earned about 1/10th of the head football coach. If money talks, then we are saying that athletics is far more important than education, and this from a public university that is designed to serve the educational needs of the state!

In the past, science has had high profile advocates that have inspired a whole generation of followers, for example, Einstein and Feynman. These personalities seem absent from the media today. Some people say that we need a TV show like CSI, to do for science and engineering, what ER did for medicine. To some extent, this would help change our public image, but its going to take much more than that. We need to come out of our shells and get much more involved in outreach activities. Scientists should be going to public schools and giving presentations on career day. We need to make science accessible to the general population, and more than that make it exciting. Science has taught me why the sky is blue, why water rotates when it goes down the drain, why eggs and milk turn into custard when heated, and why antibiotics won't treat the flu. It is this kind of knowledge that makes science exciting, and generating enthusiasm is the best way to increase funding, to attract the best and brightest, and to make sure that American scientists can stand toe-to-toe with our foreign brethren in the search for the unknown.


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