This 21st century scientist’s life & learning.

Building on the platform. 

I’ve spent some time thinking about what I’ve built over the last few years as I have made my way out from someone that wanted to just leave the world to someone who wants to contribute in real ways, in positive ways (don’t we all?), and meaningful ways.

Coming out of the dark and into a world of wonder can be complicated. Being flat and feeling divorced from connecting to the world to being vital, more engaged, can be a scary process. I realize just how much I’ve missed out on, not going deep into any particular subject because I didn’t feel much in whatever I engaged in. I’ve written before about just what depression takes away from learning and it’s hard to describe since plenty of successful people have depression (perhaps they succeed despite it), and I can still read and write (perhaps not well, but it is something I work on) and do basic math. I feel I can learn things. But I have tended to lack an emotional connection to something that can boost learning. Depression feeds into the fixed mindset as well, rather than a growth mindset too— with constant rumination and the voice that says ‘who do you think you are? You’re nothing, no one, and don’t matter’.

Eiffel Tower under construction 1888-1889. Source: Yale Libraries.

This blog has really documented that process for me. I hope I’ve been building a platform on which to build even better and greater things. Beth Buelow an entrepreneur, coach, and introvert in her really good book talks about an image series she got of the Eiffel tower being constructed. They built the base quickly, and then progress appeared to stop for a long while before the tower was completed. During that apparently fallow time, the construction workers were doing a lot of reinforcement of the structure, adding rivets and doing the preparatory work to build the tower. Building a strong base to create what was one of the tallest structures in the world at that time that persists to this day.

I hope I’ve been building that kind of base. That I’ve gotten better in some key ways to start the next phase, to really get out into the world visibly for the world to come and see. I do need reminders of how habit change can be most effective like this from James Clear. And it helps to be reminded to surround yourself with people that help you be your best. Though I find myself overdosing on ‘Lifehacking’ lately (it can be great for ideas, but easy to overdo it or to be constantly trying new things). I’ve built up a system that kind of works, I think, that’s healthy for me. And now I need to mold it into output that helps me grow more and gets me out into the world, being mindfully productive.

And as James Clear points out, prioritizing matters, and taken further, and perhaps scarier/harder is the idea between finding the distinction between should/must and choosing the latter. And continuing to learn, grow, and retain new knowledge/experience through a system that works and is evolving. And that also means being able to make decisions more rapidly than I do now, and act on them and being guided by what is truly important to me.

What is essential? 

I’m going to write an ambition of mine: I want to be a science writer in some way, shape or form. I love transmitting knowledge between minds. It seems to drive a lot of the decisions I make. It’s something that is more important to me than the research I do now. It’s an ambition that’s scary, but also seems deep-seated. I love science. I love writing, art, and popular culture. I love learning and teaching/communicating. Maybe it’s because I’ve listened to one to many podcasts and read one to many amazing writings about science that I’ve gone out of my mind, but why do I gravitate towards those things in the first place? And how to get from where I am now to a new place? That’s not easy to answer.

Being a scientist now means having to wear a lot of hats, being seen as competent and amazing at many things that Ben Lillie (partially) listed, including having a public face to engage with non-scientists. It seems like people are expected to do more and more every year, to sacrifice our lives for our work, to produce ever more value. And whatever we do has to be quantified and standardized, even if that’s not the best or is too narrow a measure.

With the digital tools most of us have access to, we are expected to do everything ourselves, to produce more, always learn things flawlessly, and basically be perfect. And yet, that is unrealistic for any individual human. Not all of us are skilled at everything, but the 21st century world seems to demand that in an era of impatient teaching and exclusion if you’re not in the ‘in’ crowd from early on. And there is infinitely more to learn. And of course, digital tools allow for tracking of productivity more than ever.

Many circumstances can keep us from trying things that we’re truly suited to do. There’s a story Mark Twain tells (attributed to him, anyhow. I can’t find a source) talking about a man seeking the world’s greatest general only to die and go to heaven to find that a cobbler would have been the greatest if given the opportunity. Did he just live at a time with no war or was it that there was a crucial moment where he didn’t take a leap into the military life? If it’s the latter, hopefully there’s still time for me to make a leap. Maybe by not having an alternative, it’s possible.

Coding is something I am just starting to dabble in…and we’re all told it is the essential skill of the 21st century. I don’t know if that’s the case, but it certainly seems handy to any citizen of the Internet where many of us spend out time. And if not having a full understanding, at least knowing some of the theory behind the gorgeous websites we see each day is important. And it’s important to know that the people who build them are not perfect either; and often have biases/problems. And I don’t think this idea applies to just coding. To be in demand seems to mean being good at all the things and not needing a learning curve. Of course, that might be my warped perfectionist perception speaking.

A lot of science news is dedicated to reporting how we might all live better, parent better, be healthier, do more for the environment, and basically be better people if only we’d all behave, spend money, or act differently. Only that is vastly unrealistic. And the recommendations often wrong because of flawed science. Science really is the last word on nothing.

What can we get wrong?

Phil Plait, in a post on his Slate blog, wrote about response to a picture he tweeted about actresses that have a passion for science (great!). The problem comes with Mayim Bialik (w/ a Ph.D. in neuroscience) and her anti-vaccination views; which are scientifically indefensible as this NPR story on a documentary about the effects of not eradicating polio demonstrates. Keith Kloor addresses this with Dr. Oz and similar and perhaps not as dangerous are Bill Nye’s anti-GMO views; if only because Nye, an engineer, does not have as informed views about biology and doesn’t seem to be strongly anti-GMO as yet, just highly skeptical. He could change his mine yet. Bialik and Dr. Oz must know better/be more familiar with life sciences and medicine.

The process of robust science dictates that any ideas or technologies supported by science (e.g. climate science, gravity, evolution, smart phones, vaccines, current GMOS) are in fact safe, work, and that is the final word (of course, each product needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis). Selective application is not acceptable. There are areas of science that are still debated and the above ideas continue to be investigated and tested by science to test new methods of delivery, to explain parts of these ideas we don’t know the answers to yet, or to improve them in some way (or create vaccines to viruses we don’t have vaccines for as yet). And of course, scientists are never absolutely certain; we’re taught to critically examine our ideas and design experiments/seek data that challenge our ideas (that may happen less in an era of hyper-competition, tight funding).

2014-11-16 21.22.33

In today’s world, it really appears unacceptable, especially as a public figure/celebrity to say ‘I don’t know’ when pressed about some question that’s out there in the world (uncertainty being a perceived sign of weakness?! I would argue that it’s the opposite). I am not a psychologist, social scientist, or neuroscientist, only a sufferer of depression and anxiety who has learned what I can about them and write about my own solutions (some scientifically grounded, others likely less so). I’ve tried to strike a voice of not barfing rainbows magical positivity, but of grounded optimism. I routinely say that I do not know, and feel uncertain about most things and this can be paralyzing. Who would do anything given the potential repercussions of getting something wrong? Phil Plait seems to have changed his mind after hearing from fellow bloggers about Bialik’s anti-vax views. I don’t even know where her anti-vax views stem from (is it a case like Dr. Oz where his spouse seems to have opened the door to pseudoscience views?).

Some of these views may be caused by hastiness and shorthand/lack of time to think. In an era where we’re awash in information, it is impossible to be informed about everything and yet we’re also too quick to be aghast when people don’t have views or don’t know something. At best, it comes off as enthusiasm you want to impart to someone about a topic. At worst, it’s used as an identity marker to exclude people, even if they’re new enthusiasts for something you’ve been into for years…and get turned out because of newness to something and simply don’t know as much. While I agree enthusiasm only takes you so far, it’s a spark that can carry you into new and unexpected places and shouldn’t be discouraged whoever has deemed themselves a gatekeeper of a community.

There is demand to specialize and yet be a generalist at the same time. And to instantly able to learn and absorb new things. I’m willing to work hard to figure things out, but if I’m given insufficient time to learn what I need to, I’m much more likely to make a mistake (and learning time seems shorter and shorter…and unexamined learning can lead to problems). We’re all encouraged to learn how to learn, and yet that seems hugely insufficient somehow. I am nearly paranoid of missing something critical or leaving some citation out. Of course, it’s not all about what we’re informed about. It’s also true that we develop identities around shared beliefs (‘people like me have this belief, I must think that too’) that can become quite entrenched in communities in which case information alone cannot change someone’s mind, as work by Brendan Nyhan and other’s has shown.

Hard at work reflecting.
Hard at work reflecting.

It may be that I’m just worried about something I feel exists but isn’t actually as bad as it seems. However, everywhere I look, there are demands to be up on the latest everything and if not, you’re falling behind the times! Keep up or go away, you can’t compete and so shouldn’t even try. The world is complex and crazy and there is likely more awareness of that than ever. Being humble in the face of that is a virtue in my book. There is likely always more to a story. And just because we’re not always completely informed does not mean we can’t act or put our voices to an idea, but we need to listen to feedback and accept evidence contrary to what we think is going on. All of these mental gymnastics should underscore just how hard it is for scientists to come to strong theories about how the world works and when a scientific consensus is reached, it’s a big deal, and more credible than an individual report alone.

I’ve never had a good cup of instant coffee. I’m not sure that exists. Putting in the work to grind beans, put them through a quality filter, and taking the time to let it steep often makes for a better cup

Good coffee takes time.
Good coffee takes time.

I am an academic scientist right now, trying to contribute to my field in a meaningful way and not add to the noise of wrong/hasty information that’s out in the world. Patience isn’t a virtue we hear a lot about anymore. The world seems to be more about speed and getting to something first. Instant may be good for some things, but I like to think of it like sources of coffee. I’ve never had a good cup of instant coffee. I’m not sure that exists. Putting in the work to grind beans, put them through a quality filter, and taking the time to let it steep often makes for a better cup (not always). And perhaps due to my (highly) introverted side that likes reflection, writing, and learning before speaking up. And I hope any job I do hold will allow me to do just that, within reason, of course. I am determined to add value wherever I work, and I hope that the skills I gravitate towards/have developed are valued somewhere in the world.

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Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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