As the unprecedented front of Hurricane Sandy draws near I find it harder and harder not to believe in climate change, and I’m constantly flabbergasted by those who still maintain that humans have nothing to do with our shifting global temperatures. Do you really need a PhD to understand that we have to make changes to our current treatment of the environment? Unfortunately, PhD’s are simultaneously distrusted, misunderstood, and held aloof by many people today. That outlook is bleak for me.
Firstly, everyone in Sandy’s path, stay safe and best of luck.
Now, on to my current gripe. There are certain times when I become very bothered by the long held notion that scientists, (particularly those with the three letters P-H-D attached to their names) are so intellectually removed and above the general populace. It’s with a certain reluctance that I tell people what I’m in graduate school for, and it’s generally because they recoil from me like I must be an elitist prick, often with a wide eyed facial expression followed by a physical inclination of the head backward. Don’t get me wrong, some people really enjoy this shock-inducing attention. I’m just not one of them.
This reaction is instantly uncomfortable because it labels me as different, as part of some alternate group that suddenly doesn’t include that person I’m talking to. Everyone likes to fit in and feel included, and that is definitely not what that reaction evokes. Instantly I feel forced into a corner where I can either try to explain my research in a simultaneously non-technical yet non-patronizing way (silently arguing that no, it’s really not that out there), or look down at my shoes and mumble something inaudible. I usually choose the latter. It’s no wonder that scientists have such a reputation for being anti-social wallflower types with less than optimal party conversation skills.
This reactionary treatment from strangers has happened to me on two occasions in the last two weeks. The first, I was actually attempting not to be a wallflower at a graduate student reception and asked a girl I didn’t know (but was introduced to by a friend) what was her graduate major. Okay, admittedly this might not have been the best opening line. She replied she was a Theater major and inquired after me. I said awesome, I was doing Genetics. Then came the feared wide eyes, step back, the exclamation of wow, she could never do that. Perhaps what she failed to realize was that while my profession may make her feel insecure, her reaction makes me feel just as insecure and self conscious. I decided to explain to her how I really felt about her reaction. I replied that theater, well I could never do that. For me who suffered from nearly debilitating stage fright in high school, her job was hard and impressive, takes work, and in my book, enriches people’s lives. That’s important! It’s just different, plain and simple. Unfortunately she seemed skeptical and soon removed herself, leaving me standing awkwardly unoccupied. I regretted volunteering my views comparing our two fields.
I had the opportunity to try a different tactic a week later, when I decided to set up in my favorite Peet’s Coffee shop with a pumpkin latte and work on some Biochemistry practice exams. Instantly the older gentleman at the table next to me took a sidelong look and asked if I was doing homework. “Well yes, attempting,” I replied, and turned back to my coffee and structures. I’m already annoyed and very obviously flashing my sparkly engagement ring as a leave-me-alone-I’m-not-single-message. Learning from my earlier experience with the theater graduate student, I try very hard not to engage him in conversation without being overtly rude. A long pause. I may just get away with drinking my coffee in peace. “It looks hard, what you’re doing,” he ventures, pretty much apropos of nothing. Then he derides himself by adding, “I could never do what you’re doing, I just don’t have the brain for it I guess.” I’m baffled: why the incessant need to judge what other people do against what you personally do with your life? I glance over at his table, getting a peak at a well worn philosophical novel and scribbled pages of handwritten sheet music. I suppose he’s attempting to complement me or fishing for one himself, but I’m not in the mood. He was clearly writing his own very complicated musical piece, something I myself could never do. I told him, “I don’t think it’s different brains, it’s just about what you enjoy doing.” I wanted to get across that it’s what you like to do in life that should drive your profession, and just because I enjoy it doesn’t mean I’m an instant wiz. Everyone likes different areas and different fields, none of which are better one than the other. He looked sheepishly down at his musical composition, muttered he guessed so, picked up his coffee and left, telling me to “enjoy” my homework. Apparently that wasn’t the right thing to say either.
So it’s really hard for me to talk in detail about what I do to those who ask, and I haven’t quite figured out how. I’d rather emphasize my interests, talking about my concerns for human health and disease, how I had family members and mentors die of cancer, influencing my career path. I think those are things people can relate to because it’s your experience not your intellect that becomes the driving force. People are very insecure about their intellects (myself included), but as the NY Times reports, smart is the norm, not the exception.
But this knee-jerk “I’m so impressed” reaction is one of those things people think they should do, as if a PhD somehow demands respect or acknowledgment. Unfortunately, not all PhD’s are created equally smart nor does “smarts” have to be a prerequisite for that PhD. I think the social isolation presents a real barrier to emerging and amateur scientists, and worse, creates an artificial barrier to the public’s understanding and acceptance of science broadly. If people constantly and immediately view science as obscure and incomprehensible, how will we make connections to the issues that we face every day that are directly related: healthcare, clean water, climate change?