A Scientist’s Guide To Social Interactions

Scientists and non-scientists can sometimes seem to be from different worlds, but every interaction is an opportunity for better understanding.

Alice TSSS 1

AsianScientist (Nov. 14, 2014) – Last night I dreamt I went to socialize with non-scientists again. Okay, this actually happens quite regularly. As nice as it is to stay in a social and professional bubble, you can’t completely avoid meeting people who aren’t familiar with what we do. As a biomedical scientist, I noticed very early on in my undergraduate studies that you can rely on several different reactions when people making small talk find out what it is we do for a living. Here’s a few of the common types:

The ‘So What Causes This?’ People

The frequency of how often you receive this reaction might depend on how you describe yourself, especially if you work in a particular disease field/organ. Well-meaning but possibly influenced by the science reporting in popular media, these are the ones who might want to know how they catch colds and whether vitamin supplements will help prevention, or how genetics influenced Angelina Jolie’s decision to have a double mastectomy—regardless as to whether you work in these fields. If you work in a medical-related field, these people are often closely related to who ask ‘Can You Tell Me What This Is?’ and then proceed to show you.

The ‘Errr…Okay’ People

There are people who when they hear what you do, will back away slowly because they don’t know how to react to it. I will admit to being flexible with the truth of my occupation while completing my PhD depending on what kind of reaction I wanted from whoever was talking to me. If I wanted to appear non-threatening, I would say I was a student—which was technically not a lie! However I will admit that if I wanted to be left alone, a sure fire way to get rid of people was to say ‘Research Scientist’ or use the N-word—‘Neuroscientist’—and then watch faces slowly change and then (usually) back off.

The ‘No Really, What Do You Do?’ people

Perhaps the opposite of people who don’t know how to react, these people may think you’re playing a joke on them because you may not conform to what they think ‘Scientists’ are like. Easily spotted by the comment, “Oh, but you don’t look like a scientist/engineer/physicist/informatician!” as though we’re supposed to all walk around in lab coats, holding smoking flasks in one hand and a clipboard in the other at all times of day.

Believe it or not, some people have flat out refused to believe me when I answer ‘Research Scientist’ in response to their asking what I did for a living. One even suggested that I was lying because I didn’t want to say I was an accountant, because you know, apparently we’re about equal in terms of the glamorous career stakes. Unfortunately, they may often reveal the perception of professions and gender roles. A colleague once told me that someone refused to accept her job description of ‘biomedical engineer’ because she was female.

The ‘YOU ARE EVIL!!!’ people

The flip side of people who don’t believe what we do for a living are those who think they know exactly what it is we do and the answer is usually ‘not good things’. If you work for a pharmaceutical company, they may tell you that Big Pharma is sitting on a cure for AIDS/cancer/the common cold but it will never be released it because it isn’t profitable. Other key topics that make scientists evil include: nuclear and radioactive work; genetic modification of organisms; the possibility that the Large Hadron Collider could potentially destroy the world; development of artificial intelligence that will achieve self-awareness and anything that requires animal experiments.

The ‘Tell Me All The Gory Details’ People
On the topic of animal experiments, while there are many who are against such procedures, there are some who want to know the details of how these are conducted, often in minute detail. Questions may range from the obvious such as “How do you feed drugs to animals?” to the more philosophical “How do you make yourself do something like that?” and the faintly ridiculous “How do you breed mice?”—true story on the last one. They often have a good humor though; one friend told me when asked what she did with the carcasses of her mice following dissection, she would often say, “I eat them” and received the reaction, “Really? What do they taste like?” more than once and laughter when realized they were duped.

The ‘I Admire What You Do’ People
Of course, for all the people who use scientists as founts of general knowledge, those who don’t know how to react, and those who think we are evil, there are many who are genuinely interested in our choice of career. Communicating about science with people who are not only unfamiliar to the field but may not be interested in science in general is a great way to make sure that people understand why we do what we do and get outsider perspectives.

This article is from a monthly column called The Sometimes Serious Scientist. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Joel Kramer/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Alice Ly is a postdoctoral researcher in Germany. She completed her PhD at the University of Melbourne, and has a BSc in Pathology (First Class Hons) and BA (Art History). She enjoys microscopy, cakes, photos of puppies, and removing warm items from the incubator.

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