Being an idealistic, left-leaning 27-year-old working in scientific research can be frustrating. From a young age, my parents and teachers pushed me to study math and science, assuring me of a well-respected and lucrative future. Despite having earned degrees in science from two of the world’s top academic institutions, I seldom feel that my dedication to chemistry and biology has helped me garner the social or financial capital that appeared self-evident 10 years ago.
I want to say that I wasn’t disillusioned by some pretense that pursuing science would guarantee social status and financial security and that I do what do because I enjoy it and feel that I’m contributing to the advancement of humanity. But it’s difficult to be optimistic when scientists’ collective hard work is challenged and often misrepresented by people who don’t understand how science works. Denial of climate change, the fear of genetically modified organisms, the anti-vaccination movement, the improper use of antibiotics, and an altogether indifference to the facts of the natural world are pervasive. As a chemical biologist who has perched his pipets and beakers in the fortresses of the ivory tower, I question how what I do helps society.
In the process of applying for federal funding, an application gives the scientist the opportunity to discuss the “Broader Impacts” of a proposed research program. That is, we get the chance to explain to an agency why our work merits financial support and, essentially, how a research initiative benefits the greater scientific and social community. As I begin to consider more seriously an independent research career, I wonder about my own Broader Impacts. If I’m already psyching myself out that people won’t value my work as a scientist, I won’t find longevity in a career characterized by harsh competition and scarce resources.
My day-to-day life as a researcher is relatively comfortable. For the most part, my schedule is flexible, and especially during stretches of time that I’m consumed in mindless and repetitive tasks, which in the type of research I conduct are multitude, I listen to podcasts. Despite torturously long days and sometimes nights in the laboratory, I’m entertained. But I’m reminded that, as I grow up, I don’t want to be complacent in a lifestyle where I find productivity only a bench top.
One of the podcasts that accompanies me during long experiments is Reply All. It’s one that discusses what’s popular or mysterious on the internet. The hosts, who have incredibly endearing chemistry together, often tackle serious issues with light-heartedness and comedy, and the subject matter is wide-ranging. A topic that has stuck with me is one in which the hosts discuss a tweet about Pepe the Frog, the internet meme of a cartoon frog that, for reasons that I won’t delve into here, became an icon for white supremacy. A subsequent episode featured the original artist of the cartoon, Matt Furie, and in an effort to combat the spread of Pepe associated with Nazi and other fundamentalist symbols and to “take our frog back,” he started a movement to flood negative depictions of Pepe with cartoons of the frog in innocuous and happy situations. These episodes aired in October and November 2016, and I learned that, in May 2017, Matt Furie published a cartoon depicting the death of Pepe the Frog and, more recently in June, launched a “Save Pepe” Kickstarter campaign to fund a comic book that would portray the cartoon character as “a universal symbol of love, peace and acceptance.”
Although I’m not an avid consumer of internet culture, this story of Pepe resonated with me and, I think, represents a pulse of our generation. The internet has unintended consequences, and in a case where a group with specific political interests distorts an image of a stoned, fun-loving frog into one opposed by the Anti-Defamation League, technology feels dehumanizing.
Even though art and science are often positioned opposite to one another, I also see parallels between the appropriation of Pepe and incidences where science is politicized in harmful ways. Scientists have historically been challenged when others, both scientists and non-scientists, misconstrue their data and misrepresent their discovery for economic, political, and religious gain. In a recent example, our president cited the work of MIT scientists as evidence to support his decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement. In the same spirit as the #SavePepe movement, these scientists responded by releasing a statement that the president’s presentation of their findings was misleading and that, ultimately, they disagreed with the president’s analysis.
These moments make me proud to be an alumnus of a school like MIT. I recently returned to Cambridge to celebrate finishing my Ph.D., and I was fortunate to have Apple CEO Tim Cook give our commencement address. He said that technology alone isn’t enough to make a positive impact on the world, that it needs to be combined with the arts. To an audience of adults who have spent their 10,000 hours advancing technology and from an executive of one of the most powerful tech companies in the world, it was important to hear that. Humanize technology. Because I have an undergraduate degree in the humanities, I felt especially connected to Tim Cook’s message.
As I logged onto social media (ignoring the company of my parents) on the train ride from MIT back to the Airbnb, I found that what was popularized wasn’t this humanist sentiment.
Early in his speech, Tim Cook made a joke about MIT students, that, in the depths of morning, they hack the president’s Twitter account. Notwithstanding that the term “hack” connotes something distinct at MIT, where police cars and Pokémon characters end up on top of campus buildings, this presidential Twitter reference made headlines. George Takei, who I state is one of my role models in life, shared with his 10 million Facebook followers political clickbait that, in my interpretation, sensationalized Tim Cook’s speech and otherwise belittled an important intellectual message. To me, this reporting of the speech highlights that people who aren’t scientists or engineers perhaps don’t appreciate the humanity in science and engineering. In the sincerest way I can say it, this isn’t helping.
On Earth Day, I attended the March for Science in Washington, D.C., which was, by certain measures, a direct response to the proposed budget cuts to and instability of federal scientific organizations and, I believe, the beginning of a broader movement that needs to happen for the survival of science as a respected institution in society. Many science and policy writers have commented on the efficacy of the March for Science leading up to and in the aftermath of the event, and from moderately critical to cautiously hopeful, these articles have shaped the way I think about my role as a scientist.
When I told friends who work outside of science that I was driving to D.C. with strangers from my university to participate in the March and explained why I was doing it, their feedback was mixed. Although I was unsure to interpret it as condescending, one of the text message responses I received was simply, “Cute”.
As I enter my late twenties, I understand that some careers, whether by choice or not, are less humanizing than others. Many of my peers perceive that a career in scientific research signifies one that’s robotic, or in some way desensitized to human emotions, because we don’t want our feelings to interfere with the results. My zeroth-order approximation is that scientific research pursues objective truth. But based on my 8 years as a research scientist, which I acknowledge is a speck of dust in the continuum of discovery, the process is more complicated than that. Doing science is one of the most humanizing and emotional experiences there is.
If you’ve ever met a scientist whose experiment “didn’t work” that day, you begin to understand that scientists commonly respond subjectively and exhibit irrational behavior. As scientists, our strength comes from knowledge, our longevity from mentorship, our success from diligence and simultaneously almost entirely from luck. Then, we also burden ourselves—provided that our experimental design is sound—with limitations inherent in the fundamental principles of the physical world. In many instances, we have no control of negative results, and it’s a humbling experience to have your hypothesis challenged.
My goal to create something—to pursue something—to humanize science has been a longstanding one, and I started working on a project to accomplish that, on my own terms. Equipped with my extremely specialized technical skills and moderately developed social skills, I decided on this.
I’m starting a podcast.
Without knowing it at the time in 2012, enrolling in graduate school effectively became a way for me to postpone for another four to seven years the existentialism that often accompanies a liberal arts undergraduate education. My training in a biochemistry lab indeed gave me the toolkit to pursue the “hard” sciences, and for whatever reasons, I exited university with a Romantic notion of the social change that knowledge could create, that I could create. In my mind echo the words of the keynote speaker from my History of Art graduation ceremony, which conveyed something like, “It’s OK to work minimum wage at Bloomingdales for a few years after earning a degree in the humanities from UC Berkeley.” Nevertheless, I espoused this—as Shoe Dog author and Nike cofounder Phil Knight might put it—crazy idea.
My mentors in science have consistently and rightfully warned me that I get distracted easily. I contend that it’s OK for scientists to be distracted, and in fact, I’m interested in having conversations with scientists like that. The podcast I’m starting is my opportunity to talk with scientists and to tell their stories. The show—my side hustle—is called Scientist, and it’s a podcast about people who do science.
I first heard the phrase “doing science” from my graduate student mentor when I was an undergraduate researcher. Beyond setting up electrophoresis gels and being deathly afraid that I broke a $2000 piece of equipment that one time, “doing science” represents a spirit of inquiry and problem solving that I appreciate more as I move further in my career. It’s kind of like Mark Watney’s “I'm going to have to science the shit out of this” from The Martian, but less badass. I think people outside of science would be more interested in people in science if they looked like Jason Bourne. Unfortunately, that’s not true, and I’ve thought a lot about how can I champion and communicate this “do science” ethos.
My graduate education empowered me to venture into a new field in biomedical research. This training has compelled me to contribute to the scientific community in other ways, and right now feels timely.
My podcast will feature recorded conversations with scientists in a variety of fields, where we’ll talk about science and we’ll not talk about science. Wherever the conversations take me, I want to explore the human and humanity behind the scientific process, and although I can’t share too many details about it at this stage, I’m incredibly excited to share this project with you.
Besides the fact that activewear is fashionable, I think the idea of a “crazy idea” that Phil Knight describes in his memoir resonates with many people my age. My generation has a bad reputation, and yes, having your own podcast is becoming a Millenial cliché. I won’t try to argue against why our parents are disappointed in us, and I will willingly admit when I am naïve about some subject. Nevertheless, I’m happy to be surrounded by peers who harness an idealism that, if they stand up for what they believe in, they can create change. My role models in this endeavor are Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and I aspire to bring a new perspective to science communication.
This is my Broader Impacts. This is my Pepe the Frog. This is my March for Science. This is my crazy idea.
Stay tuned for Scientist, a podcast about people who do science.
For more information about the podcast, visit the website scientistpodcast.org.