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We’re All Scientists, Even If That’s Not Your Title

Thinking about the role of higher education in the public sphere.

May 14, 2017

Megan Poorman is a PhD candidate in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University. You can find her on twitter @meganpoorman or documenting her travels on her website.




Today I take a break from writing my usual graduate school advice to think about what being a researcher in higher education means. As a PhD student, I can easily just focus on my research, on the goal of graduating, and on my next abstract submission. However, there’s so much more to research than just working – I must learn to communicate ideas. I’m not talking about the peer-reviewed kind of communication. I’m talking about the one that’s harder to quantify: communication with the ‘real world.’


We live in a world where everything is under scrutiny. The internet is a great equalizer - it provides unlimited information to anyone regardless of location, gender, education level, or political view. However, despite the wealth of publicly available information and numerous advances made by those in higher education, in-depth and thought-provoking research is largely ignored by the public eye in favor of myths and sensationalized news.  Society is more polarized than ever with a growing divide in Congress that inhibits collaboration. Vaccinations are still believed to cause autism despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Public mistrust of science is prevalent, affecting policies and lawmaking.


What if you’re not a scientist? Maybe your degree is in liberal arts or your research involves diving into great literary works. Should these trends matter to you?  I say yes, because you’re a scientist too – regardless of what your degree says. Science itself is not a single field of complex ideas unfathomable except to only a chosen few. Science is a way of thinking, one based on the synthesis of opinions from logic, observed facts, and critical thinking. Higher education doesn’t just teach us facts we need to know to succeed in life, it teaches us a particular way to think. It trains us to be open-minded and to form our own judgements based on observations of the world around us. This mentality is the basis for scientific exploration and is attainable by anyone. For more on this idea I encourage you to read this eloquent piece in the New Yorker published from a commencement address. It doesn’t matter if you’re modeling complex mathematical systems, studying ways to improve teaching methods, exploring ancient civilizations, or deciding if it is safe to turn left at a green light. These things all require logical thought processes – a scientific thought process.


Now that all of us in higher education have been declared scientists, how does that help solve the problems faced in society today? It is easy to claim that the mistrust of science by the public is the media’s fault, that our peer-reviewed, laborious findings have been cruelly twisted into sensationalized headlines. However, this neglects to acknowledge the role that we ourselves play in spreading science to the public. This watering down of scientific works is not because the media is against us, it is instead a failure on our part to tell our story and make our work relatable on a universal level. The importance of public outreach in science is not a new concept. Yet no traditional measures of success in academia relate to how well you engage with the public or how many of your discoveries have a direct impact on human life. Scientific research itself is based on a community of knowledge, yet we neglect to engage with the half of the community that is directly responsible for our funding levels.  


This needs to change. It is slowly, there are a ton of new initiatives out there that promote collaborative research, policy engagement, and public outreach. This is not intended to be a doom and gloom post, in fact I am optimistic about the future of science despite recent trends. However, these changes will not come about unless everyone in the scientific community participates fully. By this I don’t just mean those who have already “made it,” those that already have degrees and successful tenure-track jobs. I mean us. You, me, your colleague grading papers across the hall. Just because we don’t have our PhDs yet doesn’t mean we aren’t a part of the scientific community. In fact, we are the ones who engage daily at the most basic, experimental level. We are being trained to be the future faculty, advocates, inventors, teachers, and collaborators, but it is up to us to decide what kind of leader we want to be. Public engagement with the science community cannot be achieved if only part of the community is devoted to the cause. As trainees we can look up to our mentors for a model of what it means to be a leader in science. The next step is to engage and hone our public communication skills so that when we become the mentors, it won’t be a question of whether or not we engage with the public but instead one of how we will do so.


This is easier said than done. Graduate students are busy, some days we barely have time to cook real food much less blog about our research pursuits. The key is to start small, do what you can, and encourage others when they do the same. For ideas on how to engage with the public, and do so in a professional manner, I refer you to previous articles from GradHacker on outreach (a,b), social media (c), and general activism (d,e), as well as a few outside personal favorites (f,g). In the words of a recent newsletter that I received written by Dr. Duco Jansen, the Associate Dean for Graduate Studies at my university: “Make it about people. Explain how the device you developed impacts the life of a patient with a missing limb, how does the material you developed make airplanes fly better using less energy, how does the technology you have patented and licensed to a company that is going to commercialize it create jobs and impact the local economy. Those are things that matter to people and we need to do a better job telling our story. That is a responsibility for all of us all the time.”


As researchers and scientists in higher education, we must begin engaging with the public now, from the beginning of our graduate career, to shift the stereotype of the academia and science towards one that is accessible and trusted by all.


How do you see your role in higher education as fitting in with the public sphere? Can we as graduate students actively engage in a meaningful way?

[Image by Flickr user Ade Russell and used under the Creative Commons license.]


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