So my comprehensive exam is coming up soon.
For most of you that doesn't mean anything, but to those of us silly enough to want to do science for a career, those words strike fear in our heart. Ph.D. programs typically have two major flaming hoops. The first is an 'easy' qualifying examination designed to see how wide the river flows within the first year or two of the program, and is designed to weed out the bad apples. Qualifying exams are then often followed by a more intense comprehensive examination that spans a more narrow topic to see 'just how deep the rabbit hole goes'. Except in this case, the rabbit hole they're probing just happens to be your brain. And if it's a mile wide and an inch deep, they'll send you packing with a consolation prize (a Master's) for getting this far (if you're lucky). Let it be known that the University of Iowa sends you out with a pat on the back and a kick in the ass--holding nothing in your hands if you bomb it. As you might imagine, this type of stressor can cause, well, stress.
The combined stresses of flaming hoops in a maze designed by people who never have to actually run the maze (and don't ask the lab rats about it), with marginal pay (considering my undergraduate classmates are doing much better), guidelines that don't actually exist, and the ever present thoughts about doing it all and never getting the job you want eventually wears bright students down. There's abysmally little moral support present in graduate programs, unfortunately. Sure, there's a few advisors that do care, but most of them just don't have time to worry about their students with everything else going on in their lives. And you never quite know just how you're doing... if it's enough,.. where you'll be in a year,... et-cetera.
Y'know, I've often toyed with the grandiose (and completely implausible) idea of starting a university that actually focused on the most stupid thing it could focus on: learning. Now that running a university has become a capitalist venture designed to screw over everyone except the people at the top, it feels like learning and fun have taken a backseat to the backseat (somewhere over in row 9 or 10... err, I think). I'm often left daydreaming about how I would do things differently, steer a university, and design a proper graduate program. I suppose those are topics for later blogs. I guess I need a name for my university first.
Anyhow, that was a tangent if there ever was one. The topic I want to discuss today is the public's view of science. I recently came back from a NSF-sponsored workshop at Duke on "Communicating with the other 99.999% of the world." The main message was pretty simple: give the bottom line first, and toss out the jargon. You would think that this sort of thing would be easy, but it's not. Consider that scientists love science because it's intricate and beautiful, and then realize that 99% of the stuff that we think is cool has to be shaved off in order to get to the bottom line. When my mother asks me what I'm doing, I want to tell her about everything---from lysing cells and pulling out DNA using elegant chemistry to alter the solubility of the desired molecules, to the analysis of data and whether I should do a Spearman's rank or Kindall's tau test. Unfortunately for me, she doesn't care. She wants the bottom line: How does this help me? That too, is hard to answer.
Science moves a lot slower than you would think (at least 99% of the time). The public perception of science ranges from thinking we're actually studying fruit flies (a la Sarah Palin) to wanting to hear, in detail, about the Higg's particle. Actually, that's a good example... Recently physicists have nailed down the so called 'God Particle' to a level that they are convinced they have reasonable evidence of it. If my mother were to ask one of the (many, many) physicist involved in the experiments, "How does this help me?" I presume that they might be befuddled. Certainly confirming the standard model has little impact on my mother's life, yet this is a momentous discovery. The same goes with my work. Sure, the eventual implication would be understanding evolution and finding disease genes, but the immediate impact is minute. Something that's drastically missing from Science education is a sense of history and the impact that even little advances can make. Once we conquer this, I think Sarah Palin might understand that we're not working on fruit flies, but rather trying to understand the simple to understand the complex.
I had my first post-workshop challenge in science communication immediately after I left Duke. On the plane to Iowa I sat beside a guy that could have been from a completely different planet than I. To place this in perspective, this young man had mig-welded a steel bar to the undercarriage of his truck in order to kill raccoons while he was driving along country roads (And then skinning/eating the unfortunate animals).
So there I was, getting asked, "What do you do?" Normally I would go into great detail sharing the exquisite beauty of science, but this fellow had likely barely graduated high school. DNA was likely a tenuous concept for this fellow to understand. So, I tried my best:
"I'm a scientist. Consider a water-hose cranked up to the max, flailing all over the place. There's a prize for the person who can grab the hose at a specific spot, indicated by a red band, but that person is blindfolded. In this analogy, that red band is a disease gene and that's what I want to be able to find. The hose flailing about is our DNA sequence. I'm trying to understand just how the hose flails (recombines) so I can put my hand down at the exact time and place in order to grab that disease gene."
"Wow, that sounds like something."
Me, feeling like a badass, "it is... mostly."
Sure, it leaves out all the intricate glory, but this guy might think about science in a different light now. Who knows, he might even support scientific funding from now on. One can only hope.