Science is everywhere. Science is everything. Science informs us how to best take care of our new born babies, how to reduce disease, how to design medicines, how to make more efficient fuels to drive our cars faster for longer, how to extract energy from the sun. Science opens our eyes to how our bodies work, how our world works. It seeks to understand, fascinate, inspire. I have never doubted that science is an integral part of our society and culture, but yet I’ve come to realise that not everyone sees science this way. For some, science seems to be something that other people do, that needn’t interest them, and doesn’t affect them. While basic research may seem boring and tedious with a lack of return on investment, the results from long term carefully conducted studies of the way our children grow, how animals behave in the wild, how habitats react to climate changes, all inform the policies that shape our society, the recommendations our doctors give us, and the medicine we receive at the pharmacy. We need science, and we need scientists.
And yet, despite my second natured love for science I could never see myself as a scientist. Never ever did I want to be one of those people standing in the lab in a white coat. Nor did I know what else I wanted to do. I’ve come to realise that this comes down to not having any guidance or role models at that decision making age. I liked science, so I studied science. I don’t think I thought much further than that. In the UK, that seemed enough. With the analytical and problem solving skills you learn during a science degree you can go onto be anything – lawyer, medic, tax specialist, management consultant. And why not? When I first came to Germany, people would say ‘oh you studied science – then you’re going to be a teacher or be a professor’. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be either, but wasn’t sure what else I would do. By way of a series of coincidences and opportunities, I’ve ended up being a science communicator. It’s something I love doing, but also wonder whether I might have taken a more direct route if I had been made aware of my options sooner.
While I have been thinking over this and trying to find time to put these thoughts to paper, I’ve become aware of other inspirational campaigns and communities aiming to show the world that scientists are much more diverse than just white haired crazy men. I have loved reading the posts under the hashtag #actuallivingscientist currently filling my news feed on twitter as scientists present themselves and their fascinating science. Such a lovely diversity and variety of science and scientists – all happy to talk about their research, and not a crazy mad professor lookalike amongst them. Last year Science News for Students did a shout out for female scientists to send in pictures and details about themselves to present a more diverse picture of what women in science looks like. They were inundated with responses. The UN has named February the 11th the International Day of Women and Girls in Science to promote gender equality in science. The Royal Society did a campaign called #AndAScientist celebrating the mix of work life situations of their scientists and showing that they also had lives outside the lab – juggling life with their young families, taking care of sick parents, patchwork families, same sex couples – just like any other part of society. The Women of Science campaign started recently by PhD student Rhys Archer profiles women in science in their own words – their fears, their worries, their dreams. Films such as Hidden Figures telling the story of the black female mathematicians whose work helped get NASA missions into space, throw light onto minority groups working in science otherwise overlooked by the history books. Research institutes such as EMBL and CERN are also profiling their scientists as well as the great science they do. And there’s many more besides. All of these are really important to help show that scientists are not all crazy geniuses but diverse people with lives outside their work, with dreams, and worries, that anyone can relate to and aspire to be.
It’s well recognised that there are not enough jobs in academia for all those who do a science post graduate degree, but yet once you’ve started up the scientific career ladder it’s often assumed that all you want to do is proceed to be a professor. And if you don’t want to, it’s often seen as opting out. But we should be telling the next generation the whole story, laying all options on the table. That alongside the scientists doing great science we need people who support the scientists, manage the science, facilitate it, fund it, translate it into policies and tell us all about it. Everyone’s contributions are important and vital in order to tackle the challenges our world faces. I feel it is also our obligation as science communicators to show how entwined science actually is with our society, how relevant it is to our lives. I have met some great people in science over the years and I have the growing need to tell you about them. Over the next few months I plan to introduce you to a few of there here in a series of short teatime interviews. The first will be up this weekend to coincide with the second International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Be sure to come back soon!