With stores full of last-minute shoppers and with lab attendance progressively dwindling over the past week, the time for Christmas break is close at hand and with one last blog post to finish things off. Taking a look back at the most used words on the blog since its inception on the 29th of July, we’ve talked about a lot of topics, not surprisingly with ‘science’ at the forefront of the posts. The word ‘work’ also makes a strong appearance, in the context of working on asking good questions, figuring out your working style, and the importance of interpersonal skills in the work place. Discussions of ‘time’ are also prevalent, especially in terms of taking time to unwind effectively, using time strategically when setting up talks and communicating research ideas, and how to make the most of your time with networking. [We also learned that I seem to use ‘like’ and ‘just’ as frequent filler words, and in an ironic turn of events do a lot of writing about ‘talk’ing]
I’ve greatly enjoyed working on this blog for the past six months and am looking forward to bringing more ideas and discussions to life in 2016. Looking ahead, my goal is to talk more about the ‘Style’ side of the concept of ‘Science with Style’, and the importance of bringing yourself into what you do. It’s not about wearing heels and fancy clothes to do lab work, but rather in knowing yourself and your strengths, and in letting your passions and enthusiasm shine through what you do every day. I’d also like to bring in regular guest posters to talk about their unique science outreach activities and to do highlight posts on researchers who truly embody the concept of being a scientist with style: reserachers who ask good questions, who bring their passions to life through their work, and who make their work open and understandable to more people than just their own lab members.
For the time being, 2016 is still a week and a half away, and I am looking forward to my own much-needed break from writing, working, and alarm clocks. Wishing you all a relaxing end to 2015 and see you in the new year for a 2016 full of science and style!
With the holiday season rapidly approaching and with the stress of year-end work diminishing everyone’s immune systems, it’s time to be on the lookout for any signs of impending sickness in you and your colleagues. In addition to the cold or flu, the stress of finishing the year while reflecting on your work in the lab can bring about an ailment known as ‘imposter syndrome’, a common condition among academics and researchers ranging from graduate students to full professors. While there is no complete cure for this ailment, with this guide you can recognize the symptoms and prevent any unnecessary flare-ups that may cripple your productivity and/or your Christmas spirit.
What is Imposter syndrome?
A sufferer of imposter syndrome feels that they are unable to fulfill their career goals, that any accomplishments they have achieved are due to dumb luck and not to skill or level of expertise, and that they are simply not cut out for a career in research because they are not as smart/skilled/outgoing as their colleagues.
The holiday season offers a time to reflect on the year behind and a chance to prepare for the year ahead. It also entails finishing up lab work, writing up end-of-the-years reports for projects, and having to place orders and spend grant money before the financial office closes, which can compound the normal stresses already surrounding the holidays. Scrambling to get things done before heading home for the holidays can leave anyone with the feeling of ‘Why am I doing this all NOW?’ and ‘What exactly have I been doing all year?’. These questions then create a prime target for imposter syndrome and its counter-productive symptoms.
What are the symptoms of imposter syndrome?
In addition to the rushed and hurried lead-up to the end of the end of the year, time spent reflecting back can lead you to feeling like you didn’t do anything productive all year long. Maybe the year didn’t bring you as many results or papers as you’d hoped for. Maybe a crucial experiment for your thesis didn’t work the way you thought and you had to go back to the drawing board. Maybe you just went to a lab mate’s graduation party and realized how far away you still are from finishing your PhD project. These thoughts, coupled with the already high stresses of the holiday season, can lead to making one feel more like an imposter or a failure than during the rest of the year.
It’s easy to look back at our own year of work and compare it to the work of other students, post-docs, or professors, and see theirs as being much more worthy than our own. But the comparisons aren’t always even, and depending on the field you’re in or the type of work you’re doing, there might be a lot of depth to your year’s worth of work that can’t be seen as easily by anyone but yourself. Think of an iceberg, where the part above water may look unimpressive but the real bulk of it lies beneath the surface. When you feel stressed about what you’ve accomplished in a year and feeling like you’re not worthy of this type of career, take a closer look under the surface. Maybe you don’t have all the manuscripts done that you’d planned, but you made nice figures for a recent conference poster and can use those and a few tables as the bulk of a manuscript. Maybe a big experiment didn’t work the way you thought it would, but it led you to a new direction that no one else has been down before. Maybe this wasn’t your year to graduate, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t do meaningful things in the lab that can give you strong momentum for the next year: optimizing assays, writing code, running simulations, going to a conference and hearing great talks and getting new ideas, doing a literature review for your thesis that helped give you a bigger picture perspective on your work. Not all of these things will have a tangible, surface-level impact, but they will provide the necessary depth of knowledge and support for you to start off the next year of studies and work with the tools you need to succeed.
Graduate students and early career researchers are especially prone to getting imposter syndrome, as we’re in the point of our lives where we’re doing the day-to-day lab work required but at the same time thinking about possibilities for our future careers. When you struggle with trying to get PCR to work or spend an afternoon trying to understand one paper, it can be hard to look at a professor’s life and see yourself as able to do something similar. But take a closer look at the people we feel imposter syndrome about: They’ve spent quite a bit of time getting to where they are by doing the type of work that you’re doing right now, by running into problems and figuring out how to solve them, and now teaching you and your colleagues how to do the same (with some professors being able to pass on their lessons better than others). The work you’re doing now is not meant to tell you if you’re cut out to be an academic or a researcher or not, it’s meant to show you how the process of research works in practice and to provide you with your own depth of knowledge and support as you work and progress to the next stage of your career. You don’t have to be perfect the first time around to become a great researcher-very few of them got it right the first time, either, they just got good at not being wrong quite as often.
In academia you work with the cream of the crop, researchers on the top of their game who are pioneering work at the very edge of technology and understanding. Academics have to sell their research and to conduct themselves in a very confident way, making them attractive for collaborators and funding agencies: Anyone looking into this field without that same level of self-confidence is likely to feel like they don’t belong.
How can you treat imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome has no cure, but you can take prophylactic measures to prevent flare-up using the following measures:
Academics and researchers suffering from Imposter Syndrome tend to recover rapidly with treatment, although many will experience remission before retirement. Prognosis is generally good for those who prescribe to self-esteem building activities, personal development, peer interactions, and an optimistic outlook on the future.
Best of luck to everyone finishing out the year. We’ll have one more post to close off 2015 and are excited for what’s ahead for Science with Style in 2016!
Carl Sagan is a hero of science communication: his books and TV series provided a forum for people to learn about science, and he sought to make nebulous topics understandable and interesting for everyone, not just for scientists. Science Friday recently posted an interview in honor of his birthday, which inspired me to explore one of his non-fiction pieces which he mentioned in the interview in greater detail. I am a huge fan of his book ‘Contact’, which I devoured two years ago and consider it one of my science fiction favorites. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading his book published in 1995, ‘The Demon-Haunted World,’ with the running subtitle ’Science as a candle in a dark world.’ To provide some perspectives on the topics he addressed in this book while still giving you motivation to actually read it yourself, I’ll highlight some of his points that stuck the most with me and connect them to what I see as the current struggles between science and society.
Science should be a cautious mix of skepticism and wonder
Sagan mentions his parents as a source of inspiration for his own career in science. Not because they themselves were scientists, but because they helped instill in him both a sense of wonder about the world and the complementary skepticism needed to distinguish the true from the untrue. Sagan comes back to these two qualities quite often in his book and relates them as the crucial factor for being a good scientist. You must have a passion to learn about the universe, the wonder and the inspiration that keeps you going through mundane scientific tasks or during the times when it feels like nothing is working. At the same time, you need the skepticism to keep your hypotheses in check, to be able to look at results with a sharp and critical eye, and to prevent yourself from becoming too dreamy-eyed about an idea when new evidence shows up against it.
This sense of wonder seems to come naturally to many of us, especially as kids when they start learning about the world, and this natural wonder is the reason why many of us got involved with science in the first place. Being excited to learn about the universe we all inhabit is the driving force behind many endeavors—but it’s the skepticism and the thorough approach that distinguishes science from purely creative endeavors. Scientists and engineers must balance a seemingly contrasting set of ideals and methods: we must be imaginative enough to bring new ideas and perspectives together, but at the same time disciplined enough to know when the logic of an argument doesn’t hold up.
The methods of science are more important that the answers
Science is very different from other fields because its passion and its core lie in framing testable questions and conducting definitive experiments. While this problem-solving nature is instinctive to the human condition, we still have to be careful in terms of how we set about asking questions and what we do when we get back the answers. A fundamental theme that Sagan stresses is that scientific theories can and should shift when new results reveal a new understanding. This can give some people the impression that scientists are constantly changing their minds and therefore aren’t trustworthy. This can be addressed by better explaining the concept of the scientific method and how theories come and go as new knowledge arises.
At the same time, scientists can have a habit of getting overly attached to a hypothesis or an idea, especially if it’s something that they’ve received grant money for pursuing further. Sagan stresses just how important it is for a scientist to be willing to change their ideas when support in the form of data becomes available. As such, scientists should always be striving for new ideas and, regardless of whether their initial ideas were right or not, should aim to leave behind a legacy that can be built upon and amended as needed.
Skepticism as a key tenant of science and of life
Sagan’s perspectives as an astronomer led him to many interesting encounters with UFO abductees and astrologists. Regardless of what field you’re in, there is probably some related form of pseudoscience that develops from people’s general fears, misinterpretation of science, and a resistance to asking testable questions. Sagan believed that skepticism provided the best way to dispel the haunting demons of pseudoscience. His idea was to provide better training to help students develop their own skills in skepticism, or as he terms it their ‘baloney detection kit.’ Sagan describes his kit in great detail and again brings it back to the scientific method: you start with the results presented to you, whether they be raw data or observations, then try to explain what you see with a testable hypothesis (the key here being testable). Sagan suggested that this skepticism could be instilled in earlier years by having academic scientists more involved in public education settings, and to make it clearer that science is not just about results but also the questions and experiments you use to get there.
A look at the ‘demon-haunted world’ 20 years later
In today’s world, science is at the forefront of daily news websites, and journal articles are published more quickly and made available more widely than ever before. Newspapers have science columns and science journalists, and there is a reason for that: science can bring in some juicy, dramatic stories. Between predictions about global warming, new cures for cancers, and water on Mars, there are a lot of attention-worthy stories in science today. It’s for this reason that good science and accurately talking about the scientific method, as well as the implications of findings, is so important. Ideas like ‘vaccines cause autism’ are hard to erase from the public mind, even after a paper gets retracted, so having both scientists and lay people being at the forefront of solid science and accurate interpretations of studies is crucial.
In my own line of work as an environmental toxicologist, I see demons coming to life not in the form of UFOs and star signs but in the obsession with ‘chemicals.’ There is certainly no doubt that the industrial has severely impacted our environment: pesticides that kill more than just bugs, rivers that catch on fire due to toxic waste, and oil spills that last for 87 days. Because of these very impactful stories, discussions on the use of chemicals and where they end up in the environment can quickly become polarized, especially if they involve impacts on human health. While these dialogues are crucial, the issues can often become overly simplified as a battle between the bad industry company and the good little guy who is unjustly exposed to these evil chemicals.
There are plenty of examples of sensationalism and misinterpretation of science in the area of health, with other science bloggers keen to bring to light logical errors on 'poisoning' exposés, which included statements such as ‘there is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever’ (not even water, apparently!). In these heated discussions, it becomes quite easy to craft a story of injustice and to point fingers at the big corporations that are ‘poisoning’ us or our environments with chemicals and then to say that we’re being stepped on. In reality, these problems often have a myriad of stakeholders and there’s no bad guy versus good guy, its just different groups with different needs and perspectives. While there will likely continue to be misinterpretations and over simplification of the issues plaguing our world, the goal of science in these debates is to help clarify the ever-present gray area and act as the mediator in these discussions.
Sagan strives in his writings and TV shows to help everyone learn about science and how it works, because our success in the future is dependent on science, mathematics, and technology. However, with as much pressure that rests on these fields to deliver solutions, these topics remain poorly understood by many of the people that they impact. As scientists, we have numerous skills that go beyond pipetting: we are good at thinking, working in teams, solving problems, communicating, and teaching. We can put these skills to good use not only to advance scientific progress but also to share science with society.
In this book, Sagan not only provides a guide for lay people to understand science but also provides inspiration for scientists to continue his saga of science outreach. Through positive collaborations and more engaging and open forms of communication, we can work towards Sagan’s vision of using science to keep the world’s demons at bay, and to usher in a society that has the same passion for understanding the natural world as the scientists who work towards that goal every single day.
Sharing your science this the holiday season: How to answer the inevitable ‘So, how’s work?’ question at holiday gatherings
Christmas season seems to be more or less completely upon us. In the midst of everyone’s rush to get things done before the end of the year, our schedules are full of holiday parties, gift shopping, and festive occasions for overeating. With the holiday season also comes ample opportunities to meet new people and to reconnect to family and friends. Whether you’ve been working or studying far from home or have just been busy stuck in the lab, you likely have a lot of catching up to do with the wider world.
I did my PhD 1300 miles from my home town, so every Christmas was full of family dinners and catching up with friends. As most social interactions go, the most dreaded interaction for me would always begin with the following question: “So, how’s work/your PhD project/overall career ambitions that I don’t understand because no one in our family/group of friends has done graduate research before?” Unfortunately, I have a bad habit of not liking to talk about my work in social settings and often replied with the unexplanatory ‘Good, thanks!’ While it was certainly an easy way to change the topic, I realize now that I’ve had numerous missed opportunities to talk about own research in a broader context, and also to better explain what being in graduate school and working as a researcher actually looks like.
Why do I do this, apart from not wanting to talk to my uncle about what ‘PCR’ is? One thing is that I don’t enjoy talking about myself and would rather listen to people’s stories instead of sharing my own. When I did get into the situation where a family member or friend asked me a follow-up question to my ‘good, thanks’ reply, I was never quite sure how to respond. I tended to give the same 15-20 second description that I would at a conference, soon realizing that phrases like ‘non-model organisms’ and ‘narcosis’ might not convey an accurate and clear view of what I was doing. I wasn’t prepared for what to say and then was left feeling uncomfortable with how I described what I do. I also thought the things I was working on were too nebulous to be interesting, and didn’t want to ramble for minutes about adverse outcome pathways and secondary sexual characteristic formation. I didn’t want to be seen by my friends and family as the Sheldon Cooper of the group, with my fancy PhD and spouting off facts and big words that no one else knew (Bazinga!). Another tricky part of these exchanges is that I wanted a break, without even a thought about research, reading papers, or studying. In my pursuit of avoiding thinking about research (focused instead on more important endeavours such as watching Muppets Christmas Carol while eating mom’s home-made biscotti). Instead, I was more inclined to give a quick and banal overview of my past year in research, rather than engaging in fruitful conversation about science, especially my own.
Why should we elaborate?
While some of us are not great and avid self-promoters, these small conversations are opportunities to learn how to better talk about a nebulous topic to someone that doesn’t work in your lab. Even though many of us want a break from science and don’t want to talk about ourselves or our own strange, nerdy interests, the holidays are a chance for us to synthesize our work in an understandable and concise way and to better share with our friends and family what our lives look like. In terms of the science side, part of learning how to be a career scientist is learning how to explain complex concepts in a clear way. At some point you will have to give a talk to a diverse audience (not just people in your field), will be interviewed by a journalist, or will have to explain in detail the entire Krebs cycle to a room full of freshmen. Practicing effective science communication now will make it easier in those hit-or-miss moments where you have to communicate well or risk having your message ignored, misinterpreted, or not understood at all.
You’ve likely heard of the need for developing an elevator speech about your research. The concept is simple: explain to someone, in the time it takes to ride an elevator, what you’re doing and why it’s important. Think of yourself in some situation where you run into a potential employer or grant reviewer and they ask you to tell them about yourself-you’ve got a little under 30 seconds to say who you are and why what you do is important, impactful, and novel. Clarity and brevity are crucial here, but only practice will make it perfect. What better audience to try your elevator speech to than when someone asks you ‘So, what do you do, exactly?’ It puts you on the spot, but if you’ve practiced and thought about your take-home message and where your work fits in to the wider view of the universe, you can leave them with something they’ll remember.
At the same time that talking with family and friends can make you a better science communicator, you can also use this opportunity to become an ambassador for science. While science outreach as a whole seeks to make science more engaging and appealing to non-scientists, many types of outreach opportunities often focus on children. There is a large disconnect between scientific experts and lay people as adults, and we are still lagging behind other countries in the strength of STEM education programs. There is also a lot that we as scientists can do to make science more embracive, and to show people that science is for everyone and not just intelligent elite. Being upfront about what you do and answering questions shows that what you’re research isn’t confined to the ivory tower but is something that can be grasped by anyone.
You also don’t just have to focus on explaining just your research; you can also use these opportunities to better explain what graduate school looks like. I used to get frustrated during the holidays when family would ask me how classes were going and how much longer I had to graduate, but I then remembered that the milestones in graduate school are very different than what everyone does in an undergraduate setting, and you don’t always have a clear idea of when you’ll finish. I then explained that graduate school involved a different set of milestones such as oral exams and writing papers, and while it wasn’t full-time course work, as a grad student I had to deliver and demonstrate my knowledge in other ways. If someone isn’t as interested in your research, you can talk about what your graduate committee meetings are like, how you go about writing a manuscript, or what a big scientific conference is like. Glimpses into the day-to-day life of a scientist while showing the parallels to other vocations can help make science seem more down-to-earth than it is sometimes portrayed.
Talking about your research is also a chance to explain the process of science and the scientific method [blog post link]. This is the most basic part of science and as such is an easier concept to convey. You can talk about how what we consider knowledge that’s taught in books and in college courses comes from asking good questions and doing good research that seeks to answer those questions, and how your work and your field is seeking to continue to test those truths and broaden what we know about them. You can also use the chance to share this great infographicto called 'The Illustrated Guide to a PhD', showing what a PhD accounts for within the circle of human knowledge. I love this infographic because it shows the relevance of a PhD in the grand scheme of the knowledge of the universe (no matter how small of a blip it is!) and how that differs from knowledge gained as part of a bachelors or Masters degree.
How to become a better science communicator with friends and family
- Go into details after giving the big picture. Start with talking about your project in a bigger picture sense, because these are the things that people will remember and are likely more interested in. If you start with a detailed-oriented glimpse into your project and its role in a smaller part of the overall field of science, it may be harder for people to see how it relates to something on a wider scale which they can understand more easily.
- Don’t overly dumb things down, but stay away from jargon. Some parts of science are complicated, but other things are simple and we just have complicated, rarely used words to describe them. Whoever you end up talking to in your circle of friends or extended will likely be an adult with some level of higher education, so don’t talk to them in a condescending way assuming they don’t know anything. At the same time, remember that commonly-used acronyms and words that don’t appear in the daily newspaper likely won’t ring a bell or be readily understandable without a more detailed explanation.
- Use analogies, but only when needed. You might be able to perfectly explain how the Krebs cycle works without having to compare it to a car engine, but for some complicated topics you’ll need an example to provide some foundation of understanding. Use analogies as need be to provide some context of how the pieces are working together, but also try approaches and ways to convey your message independently before you compare it to another system. You may find that even people without heavy scientific backgrounds can still follow your line of thought as long as you stay away from jargon. In a pinch, you can always use a well-crafted analogy as a back-up in case something isn’t understood.
- Don’t be afraid to talk for longer than 30 seconds. Have your introduction ready for the question of ‘So, what do you do?’ without resorting to your scientific conference mini-speech. Also be ready to keep the conversation going in case someone is actually interested in what you’re doing. Maybe they’ve heard something on the news recently that is related to what you’re doing, or maybe they just have a knack for getting to know people. Either way, be ready to go in for the long-haul discussion as need be, with explanations of what you’re doing and its relevance translated from science speech into regular speech at the ready.
- Be ready to offer follow-up scientific opinions. Regardless of your background, once someone hears that you’re a scientist or that you have/are working towards a PhD, there will likely be a few follow-up questions for you. These will probably be completely unrelated to your research but will be focused on the news-worthy, frequently talked about ‘hot topics’ in science. Be ready to have a sound and clear scientific opinion on things like GMO foods, global warming, autism and vaccines, honeybee die-offs, etc. Whether or not you know a lot about the topic, you likely know enough and have read enough to have formed a scientific opinion on the matter. Use this opportunity as a way to explain key concepts and issues on matters such as these and to talk openly and frankly with someone who will more likely than not see you as an authority on this topic, whether you are one or not, because of your background in science. This is a chance not only to ward off any potential misunderstandings or misconceptions but also to explain key scientific concepts related to a hot topic, which is likely to stick in someone’s mind more than some buzz words about your thesis.
The key to finding a balance between all the tips mentioned previously, between simplicity but clarity, between understandability and complexity, is to try a few approaches and practice them. Send an email to a friend with some bullet points and see if the words you’ve used or the analogies you chose make sense. Write a 20-second elevator speech and message it to your aunt while on the bus to work. Ask a colleague in a different field if you can meet for coffee and talk to them about your research, and ask them about theirs as well.
Whether you look forward to the holiday season with glee or are a self-proclaimed Scrooge, you can’t deny that Christmas is a perfect time for making connections, enjoying the company of friends and family, and eating a Christmas cookie (or seven). Just as Christmas is a season for spreading hear and sharing gifts, science is also something that can be shared with and experienced by everyone. It may difficult to go against our introverted natures to share our science with family and friends, the holidays present a perfect chance for us to learn about how to talk about our research and to share with others what science really is about and what our lives as career researchers actually look like.