I’ve been thinking about things like this lately as I’ve been trying to evolve myself professionally into a writer/editor of some kind (and I seem to be making some progress there, still seems like small drops in a large bucket.).
There’s also a sense that my plate is overflowing with projects to do, things to try to do well, and some things have fallen by the wayside as lower priorities. Which is hard.
Loss aversion, where humans take losses a lot harder than gains, means we tend to avoid losses as much as possible. It’s why letting go can be hard.
If you asked me in my fully clinically depressed mind of a few years ago if anything I did mattered, if I mattered, I’d say “no, I don’t, my work doesn’t, and the world- even my small world of immediate people I interact with and like- would do fine without me”.
I’m a little beyond that low point now, though far from thinking my writing, the things I try to do for friends (largely seems to be listening), the editing I do, is essential. It’s still hard for me to consider myself a talented human being in an area of life. Or I can dismiss the skills I do have as not valuable to the world.
This may be the cost of doing basic research and being an academic scientist or a symptom of seeing the world through social media. The first takes a long time to pay off, the second reveals a world where lots of people show all sorts of things they are doing that really matter.
As I was drafting this post, I attended a friend’s wedding. I caught up with old friends, most of whom are moving into new things in their lives, at least relatively speaking. That seems to matter. They’ve grown. Are growing.
No sooner was I done with the wedding than I was off to the National Association of Science Writers conference. And the science writers…all fantastic people I met, all seeming to do a lot of hard work to communicate science well, to tell good stories, to hold people and institutions accountable, doing important work of making the connections that link scientists to one another, and scientists to the wider world.
It’s important work. Is that what I do? I’m not sure. A lot of the time, it feels as though all I’m doing is putting words on the page, perhaps relating a decent story, but one that isn’t essential. I realize it takes time to get to the point of realizing a story that matters. The last thing I want to be is an empty bloviator, however.
What problem do I help people solve? And is it possible I can get paid to do that?
The science writers I met the past two days are a really great bunch of people. Enthusiastic, caring, considerate, open to experiences, curious, and it sounds like from the first two days of workshops I couldn’t be present for (b/c friend’s wedding), passionate about their craft and working to make themselves and the community of science writers better.
There was an amendment up for vote this time around at NASW that was contentious, a vote to allow PIOs and other writers that aren’t what might be considered journalists to hold offices within the NASW.
In the complex media world of today, there may need to be two organizations; one for journalists that is more specialized and the more general NASW because most people practicing science writing professionally may well hop back and forth between the promotional and journalistic roles of science writing/communication– going where the work is (until a standardized minimum income is a reality- which may never happen- we all have to make a living somehow). Even here though, it sounds like everyone wants to do the best by the profession of science writing.
The #nextflint session really drove home how non-traditional journalists (one working for the ACLU) working with scientists (and local citizen scientists) could hold accountable the government charged with keeping drinking water of Flint, MI safe and not doing its job, even covering up and denying the problem. This while the traditional press went along with the authorities public claims until evidence became so clear it couldn’t be ignored by reporters.
Perhaps sub-sectioning is the solution. The NASJ would be a subsection of NASW and could have their own meeting in addition to the broader NASW (and the PIOs could be a subsection too). So even if PIOs and others are allowed to be officers, some independence of journalists is maintained (as each subsection would have its own officers). Other societies have zsections, often based on geographic regions, for instance.
However it resolves (I’m way too new a member of NASW to have voted; so I didn’t). The point is, the issue of whether NASW is a broadly or narrowly defined organization does matter. The people on either side of the amendment think it matters.
Perhaps that’s the key. Individuals think it matters and so it does.
Thinking I matter, matters. And yet it’s hard for me to think I do, even if progressing the past few years.
Does mattering matter to you? What’s a way you go forward and know that you matter (because you do, really)?
11/1/2016 This post has been updated to clarify some of the writing.
I was re-listening (yes, I do this sometimes w/ things I find great) to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts “Good Job, Brain” (it’s about pub trivia, and trivia, and knowledge and the hosts are amazing, if your’e done w/ Serial…it’s different than that, but give it a listen).
This episode was about the circus. One of the hosts talked about how people that work in the circus and other performing arts were highly superstitious and cited a researcher saying that the people most likely to develop superstitious thinking are those in fields where the people have little control over what happens to them. There are a lot of things that could go wrong at a circus even if you do your own job perfectly. Same with sports, acting, comedy, mime, all that. And it suddenly occurred to me: uncertain environments, little direct control over our futures, funding, and just the chaos of doing research itself might mean scientists are prone to superstition, especially early career ones.
In the life sciences, we pray to PCR Gods, take our pipette tips in certain patterns, and I’m sure more. Of course, scientists don’t like to think we are superstitious perhaps, but it seems like something we may well be prone to given the pressures academics are under these days. Dealing with such seems to result in risk aversion, becoming more insular (i.e. less inclusive of diversity), less willing to ask for the help we need, less willing to leap into the unknown (a problem if you’re trying to figure out a plan B,C,D or E career path), and more obsessive compulsive than usual. So we may evade superstitions, but the same environments may make us more prone to these other issues. I’m not a social scientist so I don’t know how all of these thing interrelate or if they’re separable, but it does make logical sense (or perhaps that’s just confirmation bias).
So let’s do a yes/no/haven’t noticed poll. Reflecting on the current academic climate and how you behave, have you noticed yourself or the scientific community being superstitious?
On her blog, Doctor PMS wrote about needing to find a new path.
I am too. Though I still have things I want to do in my research career…like publish. Anything.
these are tough times for postdocs. And the entire research system (despite signs of reform…those won’t actually help me much I don’t feel). And I hate the state of being static for so long; and I think other people can sense it. I dread being asked what I do because I should be further along than I am, period. And I constantly worry I’m in a delusional bubble; in denial about just how bad it really is.
Something really has to change. I am still staring at a brick wall. Maybe I’ve put a few holes in it, but it doesn’t really feel that way. I’ve tried upgrading my skills and yet don’t feel like that’s come as far along as I’d like either. Writing, learning stats better, learning to code more, having fun with photoshop/illustrator…I still don’t have many things to apply those skills to (a “real” project), outside of fun internet projects. I networked more than I ever have this year. And yet I still am feeling blind to possibility. To opportunity. And I’m aware that opportunity often looks like hard work. I don’t mind that.
I’m feeling like the amount of effort I put into things is not yielding the results that are needed. Change is hard, and I still need to get out of my own way and just take more chances, even stupid ones and stop this stupid analysis paralysis problem I seem to have.
I suppose the first step I have down: trying again. Because for years, I had stopped. Given up. And not felt like anything I did could possibly matter. Feeling low in value, me building something on my own, mostly of my own (of course in collaboration with other people) just stalled and that’s the primary job of a postdoc. It all just feels futile now.
So many people I run across are putting out such amazing stuff. I’d like to join them in getting work I do out there, and it may just be I am not doing the right kind of work that I am deeply connected to to put out into the world.
I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. That’s all I can say. I’d like to feel like I’m growing, but it still feels like I’m not moving anywhere fast in any avenue of life. And of course, making an arbitrary decision as to which direction to go does not seem smart or feel correct to me either.
In 2015, my vow is to better measure progress. Emails sent to network contacts, number of women I ask out on dates, miles run, etc. along with clearer goals…I don’t know what my long term goals are anymore…since academia isn’t likely to be in my future, I still feel lost as to where to contribute; where to go. Or if it’s even possible. Most of all, I need more people in my immediate real life. My friends on Twitter and the ones I have in life all live rather far away…and sometimes, I just need a real hug from a close friend when I’m going through all these thoughts.
I feel I can’t go on exactly as I am much longer and I don’t know what that means. So many fits and starts. will anything spark within me? Will anything pan out?
I want to show my friends that I’m growing with one of those ‘major life events’ everyone seems to go through but me. Dating, buying a house, getting married, having kids…I don’t have to have any of them nor am I entitled to them of course, but I feel like I have robbed myself of the opportunity to even explore the possibilities because I said ‘work first, academia first, science is more important’…but it’s not.
Science will be fine when I’m long gone. The people I get to know, help, and be around are what matters more to me. And yet I don’t see them nearly enough. As much as I’d like to blame a completely upside down academic system that encourages a ‘science first, over people’ mantra, a lot of this is still my own fault. And up to me to change. To ask others to help me make a new reality. That’s the component I always seem to muck up…being able to ask for help when I need it. to explore.
Sigh. I hope it’s not too late. I don’t know. And of course, I’ll need help.
This was my year to do things. And I kind of did. I’ll outline it below in roughly chronological order. And I’m grateful for all the people that helped get it all done.
I did some things/created online content for a startup called HappiLabs, go check them out; they offer a virtual lab manager and auditing of your lab supply costs. Both are good things for any lab. It was a good close look at the entrepreneurial spirit. I may not have it in me to do just yet, but then perhaps I just lack an idea I’m passionate enough about and a market where that idea would be valued.
Regardless, it’s a world I like being in/around and hopefully I can contribute in bigger ways going forward.
I took on an online course in content creation for thought leaders created by a great blogger & doer of things, Sarah K. Peck. I learned a lot about content creation and that lead to my guest post on the ASPB blog “Communicating Plant Science in The Digital Age” that I am pretty proud of even though I know it’s not perfect (trying to list twitter accounts by numbers of followers as a proxy for scope/influence is a bit futile; though my point was valid that I couldn’t find a single plant scientist/organization with over 50k followers compared to other fields).
That also lead to me doing some blog coverage and twitter coverage of the ASPB annual meeting and espousing the great uses of social media for scientists. While being far from an internet celebrity myself, I’d like to think I see it’s value, and I know I’m far from alone as it seemed everywhere I turned this year articles were being written about scientists doing online stuff and winning all the awards and things or something like that. Though that may be confirmation bias at work. Regardless, it’s a world I like being in/around and hopefully I can contribute in bigger ways going forward.
Mental health & self-awareness
I got to talk about my struggles with depression to fantastic science writer Carrie Arnold and what some of my solutions were/are to dealing with it and I still would love to have a job where I got to help academics/scientists improve their mental health as well as improve the system that can impinge upon it. Because I can’t change the system (or at least don’t quite know how/not currently in a position to affect change), I focused on what I can do myself while recognizing it is not fully sufficient to address the systemic pressures that academic scientists face these days (Nature ran a series called ‘ending the doom and gloom’ that I thought was interesting, and tried to at least offer a different narrative even if it’s one I don’t fully agree with). I got to talk about it in a webinar for Bitesize Bio, which was a great experience, though I don’t know if I did the best job addressing what the audience wanted. And I think I may have ignored the webinar software chat box if anyone was trying to get a hold of me during it…oops. I am still quick to criticize myself and note things I need to work on, perhaps hypercritically.
Another thing I learned a lot about this year is privilege (I am still learning); I know I am fortunate in many, many ways and benefit from being white and male in ways I don’t see most of the time. Depression, however, is something that can fully stop anyone and is a factor in ending too many promising careers and lives– Stefan Grimm being a recent example in the STEM world (I wondered here if my experiences with depression informs reasins why I am a feminist). Even one is too many. So tragic and it always drives me to tears whenever I hear a story where a person takes their own life. And though it hasn’t happened so far as I know, I still worry that being open about depression will negatively affect my career.
Learning, trials, and errors
I worked on a sequel to my first ASPB essay (linked above) that I can’t seem to get down on paper well; it’s about how we need diverse voices and communicators in STEM fields (that is an obvious statement it seems to me). And somehow linking that to teaching, writing, and mentoring— the marginalized skills academics need to have but aren’t really counted need to be valued more. If not for the writers, teachers, communicators, we wouldn’t all have the knowledge we have today. It would remain locked up in the Ivory tower, and even worse within each sub-discipline in those towers (cross pollination of ideas is a good thing, in fact it’s often where innovation seems to come from: take an idea from one domain and apply it in another). It may not be as dire as that, certainly, but that’s the fear, that without a network of dedicated communicators that knowledge, science, and ideas, will just not get out into the world. Speaking as a scientist that is working on bettering my communication skills, it can’t be left up to pure researchers all the time. Different people have different skill sets and even interests that certainly can overlap (i.e. scientist and communicator of that science). Maybe I’ll keep working on it.
…somehow linking that to teaching, writing, and mentoring— the marginalized skills academics need to have but aren’t really counted need to be valued more. If not for the writers, teachers, communicators, we wouldn’t all have the knowledge we have today. It would remain locked up in the Ivory tower, and even worse within each sub-discipline in those towers.
In the domain of wanting to upgrade my skills, I attended WiNGS (Workshop in Next Generation Sequencing) at UNC-Charlotte which was good as far as it went, but too short to really get any mastery over the software and techniques involved in next-generation sequence analyses (but several fantastic talks). I also took a MOOC in social network analysis that was interesting, but still feels a bit beyond me at this point. I am still trying to ‘get’ software that is now standard use in academia.
All of this feels like movement though it feels uncertain that it really is. I am gradually learning new things, or at least exposing myself to some new horizons. I even bought into the Adobe Creative Cloud and been using that for various projects both work and non-work related. Mostly teaching myself how to use a few of the software packages; they’re probably do far more powerful things than I will likely ever use them for, but getting into some photoshop/graphic design is fun for me, even if I’m not great at it (yet). More learning.
I also participated in a lot of the Finch and Pea (specifically Josh Witten’s) twitter hash tag games putting science into popular culture. I mention this because it’s just one of the most fun things I have contributed to. And I suppose I can claim it was practice in honing my wit. Though other people are amazingly witty.
That brings me to where I am now. Working on my science in the lab still, though science is not something I see myself doing in the long term or even being a full time academic. However, the skills required of an academic are still the ones I naturally gravitate toward liking/using. I like to teach (though I haven’t had opportunity to do it lately), to communicate— via keyboard mostly, but have gotten a lot better in person. Hopefully my writing has improved and my point gets across better than in the past.
Just where do I go from here? I am still not sure. Am I even ‘enough’ to do anything in this world? And what projects will be both help me grow? These are still questions and I still need to explore.
My new mission is to start a blog to talk about the science more than the culture of science (who knows if that new project will go anywhere). I’ll likely never fully abandon speaking about the people that do science and how we can improve the enterprise of doing science.
And of course, I’ve maintained this blog throughout the year and that’s still a fun activity for me even though I worry about sharing my thoughts with the world sometimes. Two of my favorite posts this year are the tour of NEB I got to take (fantastic place and people there— seriously consider using their products) and reviewing a book on the academia-industry transition.
I know I get things wrong. I am not so sure that my voice is even needed in the world. Other people say similar things to bigger audiences than I do. And for all the connecting I’ve done this year, I still feel disconnected. Like I don’t know how the world works. I still feel like I’m on an island, not deeply connected. Just where do I go from here? I am still not sure. Am I even ‘enough’ to do anything in this world? And what projects will be both help me grow? These are still questions and I still need to explore.
I had the pleasure of seeing John Hodgman perform live. The last few years, he’s had a theme of post apocalypse existence and meditating on just what existence means, why we’re here anyway and just who we are and what our value is as humans. First, he was very entertaining and fun. And it made me think about my value, just what’s important to me and how I can best do it as we all have limited time to do things and accomplish them. Other than what’s cited above, I’m not sure I have a good answer and still struggle to define what value I bring to the world. While I don’t feel embarrassed to exist anymore (as I really did when I was deeply depressed), I also haven’t gotten to a point where I can confidently say ‘I am a valuable person and here’s what I am about, here’s my contribution that I am making’. Ideally that contribution is some sort of work I can get paid to do (whether a passion of mine or not, but something that I am engaged with).
Getting moving again was important. Getting exploring was important. Starting to use the resources available to me was important— much more of the same needs to happen. Perhaps I’ve started a spark that can grow into a small fire.
The You are no so smart podcast (YANSS) reminded me about the Dunning Kruger effect that says the skills to evaluate how your doing at something are the same ones that make you an expert at something. So we’re not all that good at evaluating ourselves, basically. So that means seeking useful external feedback that I have tried to do more, but probably not enough. It’s part of networking; put ideas out there and see what comes back or better, ask specifically for what you’d like to get feedback on. Most often, if I ask for feedback, I get no response, which I still take to mean ‘nothing about what you wrote makes sense’.
Even when I do get feedback, I worry that people are just being friendly/nice…I want to get better, but do understand that feedback can be hard to give. It’s a part of the growth mindset I have been trying to adopt. It’s hard to put my work out into the world when I grew up (far into adulthood too) with a perfectionist/fixed mindset that stops you from doing anything until perfection happens. I am trying to say “Done is better than perfect” more now. From where I am, I feel like I have years of negative feedback ahead before someone might genuinely say ‘this is OK’. Partly, it’s being smart enough to know when to be confident and when being humble is appropriate– probably the latter occurs more often than the former (this according to Dr. Dunning on YANSS).
I did a lot this year (not all of it is in this post). I’m not sure how much was meaningful or productive (again, I fear confirmation bias, I should look into my blog analytics perhaps). Or how much of what I have done is genuinely moving me forward. Getting moving again was important. Getting exploring was important. Starting to use the resources available to me was important— much more of the same needs to happen. Perhaps I’ve started a spark that can grow into a small fire.
I adopted a cat (see photo). He’s 10. And friendly. And has no front teeth. And he’s a cat. He serves no real function other than being a cat. He and I share that we are both, on the surface, probably not that useful (at least that’s my feeling about myself too often). But I have opened up more with people because of my cat, if only to find someone to take care of him when I travel and that has made me more willing to ask for things in other areas of my life too.
There are still things on my list that are really important to accomplish. Getting more on top of my organization schemes, getting rid of old things, deciding faster, finding a job, publishing my work some how, learning more and better data analysis techniques (writing scripts, using R to analyze data, making figures within R, maybe even getting to gene expression analyses from published data sets). And of course, measuring my goals better than I do currently and going in with an idea for what I might get out of an experience. At some point, though, the ‘always be improving’ mantra is exhausting and I need to feel like ‘enough’ where I am now.
And of course, I need to be wary about my depression and hope it truly is mostly in the past. I had a scary few days last month where I was back in a horribly depressive mood, but I have since come out of it and that’s a good sign that it was a temporary state. Before, it wasn’t or didn’t seem to be. Some of this is a feeling of burn out from pushing myself this year and still lacking enough restorative activities in life. Building resilience is really important too and some of that begins with what I’ve been doing the last few years— getting to know myself a lot better.
I am working on it, on my voice, actions, and making them good ones
Here’s to an even better 2015. Not just for me, but for all of you readers too (this blog may not be far reaching, but I am grateful for anyone that does read/stop by). I look around and see the many amazing things everyone else is engaged in doing (Some of that can be seen in the links above), and as much as I celebrate other’s accomplishments or even sometimes support them directly (e.g. investing via crowd funding of science like Paige Brown’s analysis of science bloggers or Jaquelyn Gill’s student’s project on The Falkland Islands), I still long to be that generator myself, making something someone else finds useful. Success tends to build on itself and I hope I am connected enough to keep building.
I am working on it, on my voice, actions, and making them good ones,
Green is a dominant color on our planet. It’s the most common color of plant life we see. Take the MS Windows XP ‘Bliss’ photo where the green is the color that really pops off the screen. It’s one of the first things I see.
The plants we see out in the world are a sea of green. It’s easy to just say green = photosynthesis and be done with it. Even though there’s a diversity of green shading in the plant world (and beyond in the diversity of photosynthesizing organisms), it belies the underlying complexity that is plant life on the Earth.
We see plants as green because that’s the wavelength of visible light not absorbed, enriched for that middle part of the visible spectrum of light.
The light that’s absorbed in the red and blue part of the spectrum doesn’t just go to photosynthesis though that’s part of it.
Plants have a series of informational light sensing proteins (coded by genes) that help them maximize their growth and environmental responses to take most advantage of the sun.
These informational photoreceptors fall into several types defined by the wavelength of light they recognize: The red/far-red light perceiving phytochromes, the blue light detectors cryptochromes & phototropins, and even detectors of UV light. And one that’s been in the news recently that some algae, hornworts and ferns have called neochrome that is a combination of a phytochrome and a blue light receptor photoropin.
These informational receptors allow plants to read their light environment and set off responses within individual plant cells to cause chloroplasts to reposition themselves, stems to elongate or stop growing, and even when to germinate when they’re just seeds buried in the Earth.
One function of phytochromes is neighbor detection. Plants read the ratio of red to far red light (and have a phytochrome that sees each of those wavelengths best). Red light largely gets absorbed by leaves and so if a plant sees a sudden spike in far-red light, it knows there must be a leaf in the way somewhere. Phototropins are responsible for directional growth of plants, usually towards the light.
There were two articles by Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer about the origins of the fern neochrome based on a paper recently published in The Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by Fay-Wei Li et al. In it, the researchers show that the neochrome gene that’s in some present fern lineages was the result of what is called horizontal gene transfer; something bacteria do all the time, but is less common in complex multi-cellular life. The fern neochrome gene originated in an early kind of land plant called a hornwort. As Carl Zimmer points out, this kind of cross-species gene transfer is exactly what scientists do today to create some genetically modified organisms. However, nature in all its messiness did this one the old fashioned way. I would be curious to know if there was any more of the hornwort genome transferred into ferns as nature is rarely neat in it’s processes. The neochrome gene, in one protein, helps ferns both detect their neighbors and cause directional growth towards a more optimal light source, helping them adapt to life in the forest floor; think Endor from Return of The Jedi (that is actually the redwood forest in Northern California whose ferns do have the neochrome gene and they are common). Even without neochrome, plants have small populations of phytochromes and phototropins that are associated with one another as this PNAS paper demonstrates (technical paper, freely available).
There is also evidence that plants, most likely through the photoreceptors outlined above use green light as a source of information too, but it’s not enough to not have a majority of green light pass through for our eyes to see. Plants can’t afford to not get all the light information they can.
There’s a whole lot more going on in a plant than it just being green. Not all plants have adapted to use light in the same way; the information’s the same and even the receptors are similar, but the outcomes can vary.
Whenever you look at anything more deeply than the surface, details emerge that reveal the full, deep and different story. It’s something we learn in science over and over again and yet humans seem to be hard wired to often not see beyond the surface of things. And even if we can in one area, we have a hard time doing it in another; especially now that we live in a sea of information.
Diversity is something I feel I’ve learned a lot more about in the last 6 months or so– not that I wasn’t aware of it as a term, but learning about studies like this one on bias and hiring/grad school acceptance– it’s a lesson we can take from the green plants we see; utilize the diverse spectra of information (or the full array of humanity) available to help survive and thrive in what can be a harsh world.
This post was written as part of the April berry go round blog carnival.Plants aren’t the only photosynthetic organisms that use color beautifully and efficiently.
I have been trying to explore alternate careers to working at the bench and been having a hard time in doing so. I am more and more convinced I don’t belong in academia, though that doesn’t provide an instant idea for what I do want to do.
I’ve also been told that if I leave academia, it’s almost impossible to get back in. Which is likely true. I’ve also been told it’s harder beyond the ivory tower to have a stable job (I would argue that there’s not much stability within the ivory tower anymore either).
Something most postdocs, grad students, and a few PIs are increasingly mindful of the bias within the academic system to keep people within academia, pursuing that path alone. Leaving science is still considered ‘failing’ or dropping out; as if it’s as bad as dropping out of high school- you’re ruining your bright future! Never mind that there are plenty of successful people outside of academia.
I had a moment the other day listening to a podcast that showed me just how deep that bias is instilled within me as a scientist. Cara Santa Maria is a science correspondent at the Huffington Post. She has a video series there called ‘Talk Nerdy to Me’ (good use of a pun there), she’s frequented a lot of the podcasts I listen to as a guest to talk about science- usually neuroscience as that’s her background. I’m a fan of her work and her mission to communicate science to the public; ideally increasing scientific literacy (it helps that she looks like she can rock out too). And similar to me, she’s fairly open about her experiences with depression; something that does seem to afflict science-types more frequently than the general population.
I like her, but I found myself cringing when she was introduced as a ‘scientist’; my visceral reaction was ‘No, she’s not’. In a technical sense that’s true- she’s currently a reporter. I don’t think she’s in a lab doing experiments. However, that is a narrow definition of a scientist. Once you’ve done work in a scientific field and move on, does that revoke your scientist card? Cara was smart, I think, and got out at a master’s degree and is now successful in her role as science correspondent at the HuffPo (I say that since it is increasingly apparent that very few grad students/postdocs will get academic posts these days). And I don’t think that the fact she doesn’t have a Ph.D. was the reason for my reaction.
I have drunk the Kool Aid as it were that there is only a narrow definition of a scientist. A science box as it were. I would compare it to ‘the man-box’; where there is a narrow definition of what a man should be; and I’m trying to move away from the ‘how I should be’ way of thinking. People are diverse. So are men (and women!). So are scientists.
The bias that academia, and toiling away in the lab is the only place for scientists clearly runs deep. I remember hearing stories about how Carl Sagan was somewhat Ostracized by fellow astronomers because he spent a lot of time communicating with the public (OK, so I give him flak too for his intonation of ‘Billions and billions’*). It does seem that things are changing. The next generation of scientists seem to engage and communicate more than in the past. But I do wonder if people like Neil deGrasse Tyson get guff from ‘real astrophysicists’ for his public engagement (there’s no question that he’s a nerd celebrity). I think he still is a scientist who does some research still though.
I am trying to be mindful of my own biases (just read previous posts- I am biased against myself a lot of times), but this one struck me deeply. No wonder I have a hard time stepping out from behind the bench to really go after a 2nd career path. The bias against it is really deeply seeded inside me. It’s not that I wouldn’t stay in academia, I do, however want to openly explore other things I might do. And right now, in my head, I feel pigeonholed.
The lesson: Be mindful of how you’re feeling and figure out where your biases are that might be holding you back from exploration.
*It has been pointed out to me that Carl Sagan never said ‘Billions and Billions’. And after some brief research, indeed, he didn’t, but apparently did emphasize the ‘b’ in billion (from Wikipedia):
Billions and billions
Sagan with a model of the Viking Lander probes which would land on Mars. Sagan examined possible landing sites for Viking along with Mike Carr and Hal Masursky.
From Cosmos and his frequent appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Sagan became associated with the catchphrase “billions and billions”. Sagan stated that he never actually used the phrase in the Cosmos series. The closest that he ever came was in the book Cosmos, where he talked of “billions upon billions”:
A galaxy is composed of gas and dust and stars—billions upon billions of stars.
However, his frequent use of the word billions, and distinctive delivery emphasizing the “b” (which he did intentionally, in place of more cumbersome alternatives such as “billions with a ‘b'”, in order to distinguish the word from “millions” in viewers’ minds), made him a favorite target of comic performers, including Johnny Carson,Gary Kroeger, Mike Myers, Bronson Pinchot, Penn Jillette, Harry Shearer, and others. Frank Zappa satirized the line in the song “Be In My Video“, noting as well “atomic light”. Sagan took this all in good humor, and his final book was entitled Billions and Billions, which opened with a tongue-in-cheek discussion of this catchphrase, observing that Carson was an amateur astronomer and that Carson’s comic caricature often included real science.
He is also known for expressing wonderment at the vastness of space and time, as in his phrase “The total number of stars in the Universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.”