"So what do you do?" seems innocent enough, but I've grown to dread this common
question. As a 28-year-old woman working on my PhD in chemistry I answer and can
almost mouth their response. "You must be really smart," or "Ugh, I hated chemistry,"
and then there's always, "Really? You're a chemist?"
I'm not sure what people expect, but yes, I'm a chemist and yeah, those are boobs.
Women -- even attractive ones -- are scientists and science is sexy. I'm not saying that
anyone would mistake Bill Nye for Brad Pitt, but what have we done is make your
gadgets smaller and faster, medicine and diagnostics more effective, and your cars
greener. Scientists brought fantasy to reality by demonstrating quantum levitation;
watch out Harry Potter enthusiasts -- scientists have developed their version of an
invisibility cloak. We turn Mission Impossible to possible -- self-erasing inks can encrypt your
darkest secrets. If you're not sold yet, your make-up, sunscreen, beer, cologne, and
more are all improved thanks largely in part to innovations and applications of science.
But education is coming up short. I was fortunate to have really passionate and
interesting chemistry teachers in high school and college, coupled with a strong
math education -- the concepts didn't get lost in the algebra. This administration
has caught on, releasing results from the President's Council of Advisors on Science
and Technology report Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College
Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)
this month which provides a blueprint for improving STEM education during the
first two years of college.
We also have great Department of Commerce statistics that show over the past
10 years, growth in STEM jobs was three times as fast as growth in non-STEM
jobs, STEM careers command higher wages (26% greater than their non-STEM
counterparts), and STEM careers are projected to grow by 18% through 2018. Who
wouldn't be turned on by those stats in this job climate?
Unfortunately, stereotypes and misconceptions are rampant. Many still view "The
Scientist" as one of the characters from The Big Bang Theory. Although they do exist,
I know plenty of jocks, musicians, hipsters, and hippies that are also scientists; there
is no one-size fits all mold. We're probably to blame for a lot of this as we sometimes
perpetuate an air of superiority, which feeds the mystique. There's an elitism that could
use a healthy dose of checking our egos at the door.
Scientists must learn to communicate more effectively. The solutions to the most
pressing problems our planet will face in the next century will be found in science.
Translating our work is much more than dumbing it down. We must integrate and
educate people in a clear manner -- because not everyone is destined for careers in STEM
fields, just like I'm not destined to work with children (kids scare the hell out of me).
For those of you who have chosen this career, I challenge you to be conscientious
consumers of science in the media. Be mindful of agenda, opinion versus fact, and
origin. Also be aware of how you're communicating the information, and the image
you're portraying -- we are more than a bunch of socially awkward, misunderstood
geeks playing with beakers and Bunsen burners. We are bright and talented thinkers
and doers who happen to use science to make our world a little better, one molecule at