“To learn stuff…about the world.”
That was the first answer to Dr. Kathleen Donohue’s opening seminar question, given by yours truly. A soft round of chuckles rippled backwards through the seats of the classroom and I lowered my hand sheepishly. Okay, not my most eloquent response given that it was early morning (aka 9am) and I was still processing the much-needed sugar provided by some granola bars. But still, that was basically the summary of the excited pull I felt in my gut when considering Dr. Donohue’s question. After all, learning new things about the world around us constitutes the very core of science, right?
However, as Dr. Donohue called on other BSURFers, people began giving answers like, “to find cures” or “to solve x problem in society.” Oops. I mean, those are really important too, but I’d be lying if I said they were the first things that came to mind. I felt slightly ashamed. Was I being selfish and, more importantly, impractical with my intentions in research?
It turns out, at a recent convention Dr. Donohue had asked several hundred evolutionary biologists the same question…and many of them had sided with pure curiosity. Dr. Donohue explained that whether you are in basic or applied sciences, it is vital to have the desire to learn things for the sake of learning things, because this is what motivates scientists on a daily basis. “You could be searching for the cure for cancer,” she said, but you’re not going to find it in a single day. Your curiosity and investment in your current tasks, even if what they reveal isn’t the game-changing discovery you ultimately hope to make, is what will carry you in the long run. In other words, pure curiosity is what sustains people who can work years and years on something, and then finally come up for a solution to an important problem. When I heard Dr. Donohue’s words, my shoulders relaxed in relief, and I felt a glimmer of happiness and hope. So I wasn’t going crazy: doing science simply to learn things about the world wasn’t such a bad thing.
However, Dr. Donohue also reminded us of the reality that, while curiosity may motivate scientists, practical applications are what interest most of society—including many funding organizations. So it’s really important to be able to communicate the value of your work to non-scientist contacts. That’s when Dr. Donohue said something that struck me: “whomever you are talking to is perfectly capable of understanding you, if you are perfectly capable of communicating to them.” Communicating science needs to be a dialogue: you need to know what the other party cares about, what they already know (or think they know), what their concerns are, and more. If you know this, you’ll know what to say and do in order to engage them in your work. This was good food for thought for me, because I’m interested in communicating science to the public but am sometimes unsure how to go about it. Understanding where the other party is coming from, and integrating these insights into how I explain science, is a tactic I’ll be keeping in the forefront of my mind from now on.
I know a major aspect of these faculty seminars is learning about each scientist’s specific research topics. But honestly, I think that Dr. Donohue’s more general discussion about the nature of scientific research and communication made one of the strongest impacts on me. It didn’t just reassure me that curiosity still plays a key role in driving science forward, but also acknowledged that the desire for practical solutions cannot be ignored and must also be satisfied. I think a good scientist has to be able to balance both of those motivations when doing research, and I hope that’s what I’ll be able to do in the future.