Asian Scientist’s Guide To Surviving Chinese New Year

It’s not always easy, but Chinese new year and other festive occasions are actually a great opportunity to try out your science communication skills.

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AsianScientist (Feb. 19, 2015) – It’s Chinese New Year, that season of well wishes, calorie-laden treats, small-talk, and relatives who ask inappropriately personal questions. Everyone has had to fend off the long-lost aunt or uncle bent on quizzing you about your love life. But if you’re in science, you may also have had the added experience of struggling to explain what exactly it is you do at work. A particularly awkward conversation might proceed along these lines:

“So, have you found a cure for cancer/AIDS/dengue/(insert modern-day scourge of choice here) yet?”

Those of us who don’t work directly on clinical applications dread this question, perhaps because we are incapable of just saying “No” and leaving well alone. Instead, we feel compelled to explain how our very interesting basic research may (eventually, at some point, in the fullness of time) lead to potential drug or vaccine targets, which will then have to go through years of development and clinical testing before… By this time, Auntie’s eyes have glazed over, and you have probably started to wonder why you didn’t go to medical school instead.

“But why does research take so long? If you worked harder, wouldn’t you be able to get more done?”

Let’s take a deep breath and give Auntie the benefit of the doubt—she is genuinely curious and not out to offend. We might explain that, in an ideal world, we would be able to fast-forward through month-long experiments and overnight incubation periods. The organisms we study, be they mosquitoes, mice, or monkeys, would have lightning-quick life cycles and always behave exactly the way we expect them to. Experiments would never fail for no good reason, and we would never make a mistake, ever. Unfortunately, because the real world is so much messier, the time-consuming business of troubleshooting is part and parcel of the job. So you see Auntie, progress tends to happen in tiny increments, not Eureka moments, no matter how many hours we work. Erm, Auntie? Are you still with me?

“How much do you get paid? What! Really? All those years of studying and you are still earning less than my banker son/daughter?”

Yes, we know, and we are very happy for your son/daughter. If you’ll excuse us for a moment—we’ll just be over there listening to our Sam Smith mantra on repeat: “I don’t have money on my mind, money on my mind / I do it for, I do it for the love…”

“Can you claim overtime pay? What about taxi fare home? Does your lab provide dinner if you work late?”

Pro tip: Cramming some Chinese New Year snacks into your mouth is an effective (and delicious) method of preventing yourself from bursting into incredulous laughter. Chew. Swallow. Breathe. Smile and say politely: “No Auntie, I must be in the wrong profession.”

Note: I have actually been asked all of the above questions in one social setting or another (Auntie is not a real person, but a composite of all my inquisitors). One of the perks of writing this column is that I get to have fun and unleash my inner snark; however, I highly recommend not doing this in real life. Most people mean well—they just genuinely have no idea what your job is like, because it is so vastly different from their own.

And the truth is, while scientists moan a lot about being a misunderstood bunch, we ourselves have a very hazy idea of the challenges faced by bankers, lawyers, teachers, circus acrobats… and Aunties. A simple, sincere conversation could go a long way towards eliminating the misconceptions that people have about scientific research.

In any case, if all else fails, you could always try declaring that you need to leave and go to the lab, so that you can come up with that cure by next Chinese New Year. I hope that gets you a round of applause, and maybe even a few extra pineapple tarts.

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


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: yuyang226/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Shuzhen received a PhD degree from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, USA, where she studied the immune response of mosquito vectors to dengue virus.

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