I knew what I wanted to be since I was three: a scientist. The thought of solving the mysteries of the universe was the only thing that got me excited — even more than Disney characters, or whatever three-year-olds were into at the time. For the next twenty-something years, I dedicated my life to science. I read Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” as a five-year-old and I started doing experiments in our family house’s basement in elementary school. I also built my computer from scratch in high school. Oh, and if you were not impressed already, when I took an IQ test, I scored over 200.
Only none of what I just said is true. I wish they were.
If you are reading this, picture a scientist in your head. At least some of you pictured a person who is extremely intelligent in a pristine white lab coat, wearing goggles and gloves, and holding a flask with mysterious, bubbling liquid in each hand. And of course, sporting the messy, mad scientist hairstyle and the social ineptitude too.
As a Human Genetics graduate student, I have faced several stereotypes associated with being a scientist. In Ann Arbor, where students make up a good chunk of the city population, I fit in. But when I hang out with people who are mostly working, I almost feel out of place. It has become pretty common for people to stare at me with awe or act intimidated by me, though the only thing I’ve said is: “Hi. My name is Irene, and I’m a genetics Ph.D. student.”
Either the person’s eyes grow wide and they interject something like “Whoa,” and walk away, or they start complimenting me on how smart I must be because I am doing a Ph.D. in science. Situations like these have happened so often that I sometimes hide my true identity and just say my name when I first meet people to save the trouble.
You might wonder why I feel uneasy to have people think I am smart. After all, isn’t that better than the other way around? Isn’t this a first-world problem?
Sure, I like it when people compliment on my intelligence. And I do prefer to have people think of me as smart than not. But the problem here is that most of these people have met me for the first time, and they are assuming something about me solely based on what I like or what I do. Isn’t that the problem with all stereotypes?
Yes, I like science. That’s why I am doing a Ph.D. that will take me anywhere from four to “n” years to complete. Unlike other advanced degrees, you graduate when your thesis committee, a group of four to five faculty members, agrees that you are ready.
And I do like to do science. But, in contrary to what most people think, doing science is simple problem solving, which sounds fancier than what it actually is. Virtually everyone does a bit of problem solving here and there without realizing it. People follow the steps of the scientific method all the time: observe, ask a question, construct a testable hypothesis, test your hypothesis, analyze the results, and draw a conclusion. For instance:
1. Observations: I have gotten many texts from this particular guy lately. He always wants to hang out with me and is possibly flirting. He is single. I am single.
2. Question: Is he interested in me?
3. Hypothesis: He is interested in me.
4. Test: I will ask him in person if he is interested in me.
5. Result: He says that he is indeed interested in me.
6. Conclusion: He is interested in me.
Sounds familiar? Congratulations! You think like a scientist. With simplicity and the unlikeliness of the situation aside (usually no one does the test in #4), you get the idea. We all are capable of thinking through a problem. The only difference is that scientists, myself included, routinely apply this process to scientific problems.
As a person who has been doing science for several years, I do not think science is as difficult as the public perceives it to be. Don’t get me wrong — it takes a lot of hard work, but some people (e.g. my parents) seem to see science as something “normal” people simply cannot understand even if they tried. Because of this I am troubled when people perceive me as extremely smart. I immediately sense an invisible barrier and people distancing themselves away from me, as if I am an alien doing something that is far out of their reach.
I see that barrier in people’s attitude toward the STEM subjects. Why is it that when people struggle with science and math it is almost readily accepted, as if doing well in science and math is not normal? But when people struggle with reading, they are treated like idiots? My high school required four years of English for graduation, but only required two years of science and math. The ability to read is clearly important for everyday life, but being able to think logically is equally as important. That is the skill you pick up from science and math classes.
What is so intimidating about science? Is it the jargon? At the end of the day, those are just words. They are just as specialized as the words that we encounter in other fields, like finance, history, and art.
Could it be the people? The people who have made the scientific discoveries that we read about in textbooks and newspapers are not too different from you or me. I have been on the other side before when I was talking to an eminent, accomplished scientist who has received many awards and recognitions for his work. But when he started talking about his hobbies and what he likes to do for fun, I realized that he is just like the rest of us, and he became less intimidating.
I am certainly not a genius who knows everything there is to know about science and thinks about my project all the time. On my off-days I like to wind down and watch the Food Network and try to re-create some dishes (and eat them), jog through the Arb when the Ann Arbor weather is nice for once, or waste time taking BuzzFeed quizzes. And I’m sure this isn’t just me.
So maybe the next time when people in lab coats intimidate you, you should ask them what they like to do for fun. Their answers just might surprise you.