BEACON Researchers at Work: Professional Scientist, Amateur Ambassador

This week’s BEACON Researchers at Work post is by MSU graduate student Rosangela Canino-Koning. 

Photo of Rosangela Canino-Koning“You study evolution? Oh, I don’t believe in that.”

Virtually every new graduate student has experienced that flash of panic when confronted by a well-meaning relative, asking that dreaded question, “What do you do?” Even if your topic of interest isn’t particularly specialized (and whose isn’t?), formulating a non-technical “elevator pitch” can be a daunting task. And when you start that pitch with, “I study evolution,” things can get dicey pretty quickly.

When we first start our research, our advisors, professors, and colleagues go to great lengths to paint a realistic picture of what a career in science entails. The long nights, the continual struggle with writer’s block, and the endless dry periods between epiphanies are described in exhaustive detail. Our teachers continually remind us that science is a game of bashing your head against a wall until you break through, and then running headlong right into the next wall. Jobs are few, failure is the norm, and success the exception, etc., etc.

But what they don’t tell us is that by accepting this path, we, for better or worse, become ambassadors for science. We become the face of scientific research to friends and family who may not have any other exposure to it. No matter how obscure your field, no matter how tiny your journal reading list, you still must find a way to explain to your mom what you learned this week.

Communication between scientists in the same field can be very difficult. Much more so is communication between scientists and non-scientists, where there is potentially a very large gap in terminology and education. For the study of evolution, the difficulty is multiplied by the fact that there are many people who misunderstand, or simply do not believe in, what we do. This can make the prospect of discussing our research with our families so terrifying that we carefully avoid the subject altogether rather than risk stepping on a conversational landmine. In the process, we miss a great opportunity to de-mystify our work.

Schematic comparing order of genes in two genomes

My research could be charitably described as esoteric. I study the effects of fluctuating environments on the genetic structures of self-replicating evolving computer programs. In particular, I test hypotheses about the kinds of genetic structures that evolve when the environment changes in cycles, and whether those structural changes promote faster evolution of new traits.  

In practice, this means that I spend a lot of time in front of the computer staring off into space with a blank document in front of me. On a good day, that document ends the day filled with notes and ideas for experiments, analysis of my results, and plans for what to do tomorrow. On a bad day, the page ends up filled with expressions of frustration with computer resources on the fritz, or painstakingly generated graphs that show no results. On the worst days, the document stays empty because nothing worthwhile got done.

But on the very best days, when I generate a figure that will form the basis of a new paper, or arrive at a new insight about a troublesome problem that I’ve been wrestling with, those are the days that make it all worthwhile. Those are the days that I achieve, in my own small way, the primary goal of science, which is finding out the truth about the world.

Scientists may study the mysteries of the universe, but we don’t need to be mysterious ourselves. My work is challenging, frustrating, and rewarding, just like any other line of work. I am highly trained, but so is a medical doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. We aren’t all that different, and we all want the same things.

I suspect that many of our difficulties with communicating science to the public are self-inflicted. The stereotype of the scientist as white-robed scholar-priest continues to be perpetuated because we like how it fits. We like holding ourselves at a distance. This distance comforts us and reassures us that we are special, that we are smarter, and better than everyone else.

This comforting distance is what leads the public to call us elitist, and allows the opponents of reason to attack science with impunity. It is what allows the Anti-Vaccine, Global Warming Denial, and Creationist movements to flourish.

We can fight back by simply sharing our research more openly with our families and friends. The public’s image of scientists is already pretty battered, but a caricature can never stand up against a real breathing person. Sure, there may be a few uncomfortable moments during those first few conversations, but enthusiasm is infectious, and in the end, one person at a time, we can change people’s perceptions of who scientists are, and what it is that we are actually trying to do here.

For more information about Rosangela’s work, you can contact her at caninoko at msu dot edu.

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