Monday, April 20, 2009

Uphill Battle

Overheard at an airport gate:

Mom to 9 year old son: You're going to be a teenager in 4 years. If you ever start doing weird things when you're a teenager, I'm going to have you locked up in a jail.

Son: What do you mean by weird, Mummy?

Mom: Like wearing lots of black clothes.

Son (voice quavering): But I like to wear black, Mummy.

Mom: No, I don't mean just wearing some black, but wearing only black. Lots of black. Maybe even black lipstick. And being pale and depressed. I will be so mad if you do that.

Son: Oh, I'm not going to do any of that. I'm going to be a paleontologist. I want to study dinosaurs and clone them from their DNA.

Mom: That's just as bad. Scientists lock themselves up in their labs and never talk to anyone and they get really depressed. You are not going to be a scientist.

This conversation depressed me, and I was only wearing a little bit of black. But I am a scientist, and hence easily depressed. Perhaps this mother is actually a fabulous person and her son is a happy and well-balanced child, but what kind of person discourages their child from being a scientist? Or anything, at age 9?

What then must we do (Tolstoy, 1886)? And whatever can be done to change this negative perception of scientists? More interaction with real scientists in K-12 education? A popular TV or book series starring a socially functional science-hero(ine)?

45 comments:

Anonymous said...

It seems like doing well in school or good at math and science is Uncool...

Anonymous said...

I gave a talk to a group of 5th graders about sciency stuff. They made me cards and mailed them the following week. One of the cards said "I really like [cool stuff] but my mom said no way. Thanks for showing us anyway."

The show goes on~! said...

Have ever watched the TV series 'The Big Bang Theroy'?
Scientist guys in that program are awsome~! However, they are still a little far from normal social life...

RoboFemme said...

Oh my goodness, how awful! That reminds me of a comment from my (very supportive, but slightly clueless) father several years ago. I told him about this great research result that my professor was going to present at a conference, and he said something to the effect of "That's how science is: Scientists work in isolation for a long time with very little reward, but they live for those rare times when they get to present special results at conferences." That single, offhanded statement made me seriously doubt research as a viable career, but happily the effect seems to have worn off.

Anonymous said...

AGH! That is terrible. I've given talks about astronomy to 1st and 2nd graders, and the wonder and curiosity in their eyes is amazing. (And by talks I mean "lots of pretty pictures with some basic sciency facts thrown in). It's so tragic that somewhere along the line people like this boneheaded mother discourage them. And it highlights just how important outreach is to combat these impressions.

On the same line of thought, I've noticed recently that almost all of the science people I know have one or both parents in a technical field. Of course there are exceptions, but it seems like a general trend. My dad is a Scientist, and every day I'm grateful my parents didn't put this noxious garbage in my head.

Nicolas said...

I was thinking about this. How about a TV show, something like "American Idol"?

With hundreds of contestants, presenting research papers on TV, being eliminated, and in the end the last person standing gets a grant to study at a large research university?

Anonymous said...

my mom expressed surprise when I decided to major in electrical engineering, asking me "but wouldn't you prefer to do something more feminine?" But my dad was thrilled. Then she got used to the idea so by the time I got my PhD she was totally cool with it. That was many years ago.

Mrs. CH said...

I have a feeling that particular mom has a problem with pretty much everything. Who tells their kid what not to do in 4+ years?

It is quite sad that she thinks being a paleontologist is bad and depressing. The poor kid just got his dreams crushed...by his MOTHER!

mcleaninasia said...

Hey,

As an educator and father of three reasonably functional adults, I think it would be helpful for you to get out of your enclave.
The real world doesn't see scientists as weird or depressed but only as perhaps as little nerdy extensions of ourselves. Time to take your child for a walk in the forest!

I enjoy your thoughtful struggles.

veronica said...

sorry, but that momma is just plain ignorant.

i love science and love to teach my kids about how the world works and how to learn for themselves through experimentation.

i watched beakman's world with my sister when she was a kid and thought that was the coolest show, and wish they had had that when i was growing up. and most every person i know that is in the field is a vibrant (non-depressed) person. i think it all depends on attitude. :)

poor kid. i feel like he's going to be one of those kids that is never going to live a dream. *sigh*

Anonymous said...

I am a scientist and I often feel isolated. In graduate school, I spent weekends working on my papers, when my civilian housemates hiked, biked, and partied. I've moved 3 times in the last 3 years for postdocs and jobs. Community, anywhere?
The airport mom may be paranoid and a bad parent, but she's not entirely wrong.

Anonymous said...

On Friday I talked to a mother who was worried and upset that her 16-yr-old daughter might go into science (warning signs: she enjoys her physics class and consistently scores in the 99th percentile on standardized math tests). The scary thing was that this mother had a PhD in chemistry herself, and her worries were founded in her own bad experiences as a woman trying to raise a family while working as a scientist (which had caused her to leave the field). How much of the previous generation's bad experience in science trickles down and kills the enthusiasm of girls filling the bottom of the pipeline?

DrDoyenne said...

It's all part of a failure on our (scientists) parts to engage in outreach and to make our science understandable to non-scientists.

I used to blame Hollywood for the view of scientists as crazy, depressed people who experimented on themselves (with terrible consequences). But this pre-dates Hollywood. I'm not sure how far back it goes, but Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" (1818) comes to mind.

In any case, people view scientists as "different", therefore not something they want their children to be. This comes from unfamiliarity with what scientists actually do and disbelief that most of us are (relatively) normal people (dedication is not the same thing as obsession).

Outreach, public seminars, even blogs are great ways to reverse this negative image of scientists as misfits.

I recently participated in a program run by the Smithsonian Institution called "Scholars in the Schools". Scientists go into schools dominated by disadvantaged students (7th grade) and give science talks and lead hands-on activities. It was a great experience. I would have been happy to have influenced even one student, but several (girls and boys) at different schools came up and said they wanted to do what I do.

Unfortunately, the most consistent question I got was, "How much do you make?" (I interpreted this as, "I'm interested in science, but only if it pays a lot"). My answer was that it was more important to enjoy what you do than to make a lot of money (this seemed to really puzzle a lot of them).

In the age of the Internet, we scientists now have the opportunity to change this distorted view of us. We need to take control of our image (and message) back from those who misrepresent us.

It starts with individual scientists taking responsibility for it and not waiting for others to do it for us....

Curt F. said...

The mother does seem to have been a bit close-minded.

But there is a lot of gray between "you are not going to be a scientist" and "I would love it if you study dinosaurs and clone their DNA".

What if the mother said, "That's a very noble thought, but scientists sometimes lock themselves up in their lab and are too isolated from the rest of society. Promise me you won't be one of those types of scientists."?

What if she had said, "Cloning dinosaur DNA...what a noble and exciting intellectual pursuit! But it's hard to pay bills that way, and I think you can make bigger and more lasting contributions to society as a businessman. Maybe a good idea is, get to be financially secure as a businessman, and then retire early and focus on cloning dinosaur DNA after that."

What if...? Well, first, both statements would probably be incongruously out of place as banter to fill up time at airport gates. But if those were the mom's thoughts about her son's career prospects, would she be wrong to voice them?

John V said...

I think the mom has accurately captured our characters, although her blanket recommendations are laughably bad advice.

We do prefer numerical work on computers (or the techie equivalent), work long hours, could make more money elsewhere, and many have subpar social skills.

Choosing science is not for all personalities. My 9th-grade daughter is unequivocally set against a career in science after close inspection of mine, aiming for journalism or language, on the sound ground that science like mine is not as humane as other options.

I'm always surprised at attempts to portray scientists as Indiana Jones - a quick look around any faculty club would show the false pretenses of that in a second.

Rachel said...

Haha, I LOVE Nicolas' idea. Woooo Science Idol!!

Helen said...

To Nicolas, we do already have a tv program like that in the UK which has been very successful. It's only been going for a few years but it's growing, and the winners get a lot of publicity and are offered many more opportunities to share their enthusiasm for science. Have a look at http://famelab.org/

chall said...

I guess she wanted him to become a happy... like an economist? Lawyer? MD? Since these people never see boring things or are introvert, right?

I don't know what's wrong with people but surely there are some scientists out there who aren't depressed and sad to look at [in their opinion]? And quite happy with what they do?

In any event, any attempt to say "no you shouldn't" to kids who aspire to do things is bad. The should get encouraged to strive forward.... and really, a degree is never bad.

Cloud said...

I'm going to choose to believe that the mother was joking and just has a really weird sense of humor. Because that is the sort of exchange I could see my husband having with our daughter in 7 years, but it would absolutely be an inside joke.

However, I do remember going in to do a simple physics experiment with my Mom's 1st graders many years ago, back when I was in grad school. My Mom had them draw pictures of scientists before I came in. Lots of white coats and weird hair, and all men. They had a hard time believing that I was a scientist when she introduced me. Maybe I should have teased my hair.

Patchi said...

Kathleen V. Kudlinski has a great set of books about science and scientists. My 3 year old got one called "Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs!" It's great to teach kids the scientific method and how what you know depends on how you interpret the data. It also portrays scientists as young people, women & men, and having fun with their work. I noticed there is one called "Boy, Were We Wrong About the Solar System" and I can't wait to add it to our library. These are the kinds of books children should be growing up on... and this mother should be reading them too!

Anonymous said...

i guess this mother did not see the power rangers then - paleontologist and super hero. yes, i say this with a smile on my face. my 9 year old wants to either be a paleontologist or game software designer, as he thinks both of these professions are "cool".

Anonymous said...

"You want to be a CEO of a major corporation? NO way! Those people work too hard, ignore their families, make morally dubious decisions to further their careers, and ultimately realize that the dumptrucks of money they make can't buy them happiness! There's no way I'll let you be a CEO."

:p

Megan said...

My own university bought into the stereotype that engineers are shy and have no social skills. Or maybe they were catering to local employers who believed that stereotype. Either way, we were all forced to take a few classes freshman year to learn how to not be so nerdy and backward. Those classes were the only easy As throughout college, but they still took up valuable time that I could have used to study, sleep, or practice social skills in real life.

In reality, I work with others as part of my daily job. A good scientist will realize that they don't know everything and they can benefit from consulting their colleagues.

Madoo said...

The thing in your post that really struck a chord with me was your offhand comment that you are a scientist and therefore you get depressed. I am definitely this way, and I have learned that a lot of people I really respect (and thought would not be victims) are so too. I would be interested to hear more on this topic. Do we all really tend to depression? If so, why? A poll?

female Science Professor said...

Actually, that was a joke, or an attempt at one, or at least an attempt at sarcasm (sorry).

yolio said...

"...but mom, I like wearing black"

The kid is only nine and he has already figured out that his mother's judgment is suspect. He'll be alright.

Kevin said...

Maybe the "all black clothes" comment wasn't about Goth fashions but about being a stage hand.

Perhaps the mother knew that the kid was super-rebellious and was much more likely to do something she appeared to disapprove of.

Maybe she was religious fanatic and disapproved of science because her guru/pastor told her to.

Maybe she was a scientist who had just lost all her funding and her job and was in the airport on the way to a job interview for yet another short-term postdoc.

Seriously, we really need more context before we can judge either the mother or the child.

Anonymous said...

I actually take much pride in the fact that people who just meet me would never suspect that my career is science professor and that they are shocked and somewhat impressed when I tell them. I like to think that it's my stellar social confidence but I think it has more to do with the fact that I look like I'm 23.

I actually have made it my personal mission to if not as least break but to make people rethink their stereotype of scientists being dorky, socially incompetent men.

I'm opposed to any parent discouraging their child from something positive or a particular career that they really want to do.

Anonymous said...

A socially functional scientist doesn't exist....

female Science Professor said...

In fact, I know quite a few.

Anonymous said...

Etched in my memory is my second grade teacher telling me "so you want to be a scientist?", with a heavy dose of derision. Although she left other mental scars, science & engineering (which I like to think of as the application of science) are still my passion. People like her shouldn't be allowed to "teach".

tig said...

I ask myself often "Why am I a scientist?". It's the most idiotic career choice in terms of stability outside of acting.

In the UK, you train for SIX years (B.Sc = 3 yrs, Ph.D = 3 yrs) to get paid the same as a graduate does in other careers.

You are stuck on 3-year post-doc contracts effectively forever unless you are capable of getting a Fellowship or a Permanent Position. 3-year-contract = no chance of getting a mortgage unless you are (a) living with someone with a sensible job or (b) lie (which is a stupid thing to do cuz if in 3 yrs time you're unemployed, you still have a mortgage to pay off).

Getting a permanent position doesn't mean being good at your job, being a good scientist or being good at anything other than jumping through the right hoops and (metaphorically) sucking the right c*cks over the years. The politics of academia are insane.

I would only recommend someone take a career in science (as in an academic career in science) if they have a large contingency fund in the bank for those unemployed years when you can't get funding, have a very understanding partner and are willing to up-sticks to find work - including moving 10,000 miles with your family in tow. Oh and then moving back again in 3 years when the contract ends.

Is that honestly a career you'd recommend?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, we do. I have verified proof in an email. I was chosen for a program for my 'excellence in research, my teaching experience and my social competence.' I can go all sciency dorky when I want to but I've also made a point to keep a healthy mix of friends from all walks of life. Keeps me from from getting too sucked into my science world. I can talk to anybody about anything. The stereotypical types of people that are in science is changing. However, I do agree that we have done a horrible job of disproving these stereotypes.

Anonymous said...

If more people knew more about my job, they might think of scientists differently. Take us scientists at primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs). We have to be somewhat socially adept, because educating and motivating 20-ish year olds is job one. We also spend a lot of time in outreach to our communities, just to get our university's name out there. We're a self-selected group of people-lovers.

Most of all, we have to have a very creative research program that is interesting enough to get published, but not intersting enough to get scooped, and must be done with relatively untrained lab help who only have a few hours a week to be in the lab. We have to be able to do our science with a heavy teaching load, which requires Pausch-like efficiency. Oh, yes, and it must be seriously low-budget science.

Think "Science Survivor: PUI." Cobbling together a mansion from sticks and twigs gathered on an island. Now that's exciting science adventure!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the mother wants her son to grow up to be something better than a scientist like, I don't know, a drug dealer or a pimp or something. In regards to the opposition against black clothing, maybe she just wants him to be a happy nudist. These are all options! Seriously, though, I think there are some people who just shouldn't have kids, you know?

Clare said...

Arghhhhh! Palaeontologists don't really work in labs... They're geologists.... they do fieldwork and have tans in January....
I love being a geologist. I get to collect rocks and everything. So I'm a scientist, I love my job as a postdoc, have no job security but get to explore fun parts of the world as "work". Bring on science.
And oh, I was just pointed towards your blog this afternoon and I think it's great, thanks!

Andre said...

DrDoyenne, I like your response to the students' questions about salary. Money certainly isn't the reason most people go into science and I totally agree that money doesn't necessarily bring happiness. Still, lack of money can bring a lot of stress and unhappiness so maybe the second part of the answer could be that most scientists and people with some science education do end up making enough money to be comfortable. I don't know about other fields, but there's some pretty good data for physicists from the AIP that includes people with bachelors, masters, and PhDs in and out of academics:

http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/emptrends.html

As far as Hollywood is concerned, I share your frustration, but there's hope there too. The National Academy of Sciences has a new program called the Science and Entertainment Exchange that's meant to foster communication between people in the entertainment industry that want to get science right at the same time that they entertain and scientists that can help them do it. The best part is that it's run by science blogger extraordinaire Jennifer Ouellette of Cocktail Party Physics. If you liked the Smithsonian Institution program, maybe the SEE is something you would also like.

FSP, if I remember correctly from Jennifer's talk at the American Physical Society March Meeting, they're looking for more physical scientists including materials scientists...

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Tig. I'm in an even worse situation - I would be thrilled if I could get even a 3-year contract, instead my contracts are for ONE YEAR at a time. I've been doing this for several years already and I can't really take much more of it. I would not recommend science as a career to anyone unless you are rich or have a wealthy spouse and don't really need a stable income or unless both you and your family don't mind uprooting every other year so you can get yet another one-year contract. And it is true that being "good at your job" is not what lands you a permanent position, and to me 'permanent' means anything beyond a one-year contract. Thus I too would recommend youngsters against science careers, but not for the same reasons as the mother in the story.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty shocked at what people are saying about employment after PhD considering it's not at all the experience that I've seen from grads in my field. People generally do one of the following:

1) Go to industry for a medium paying but (reasonably) stable job.
2) Get a postdoc somewhere for 2-3 years, then get a faculty job.
3) Go into undergraduate teaching (in the US there are hundreds of small colleges that hire PhDs straight off)
4) Teach at a private high school
5) Leave science and do something else (sometimes it's science admin, or journal editing or public policy of science, sometimes it's totally unrelated)

5 is the "worst case" scenario, and given that everyone in my field generally has their PhD paid for with a livable stipend, you're usually break even financially at this point.

Honestly I think one of the things that attracts me to academia IS the stability. A drop in the economy will not get me kicked out of graduate school, nor once I get tenure will it get me fired. I can't hope to make millions but I don't give a %&@*! about that to be honest. These arguments really confuse me.

unlikelygrad said...

Kevin:

I disagree. It doesn't matter what is happening in the mother's life; she should absolutely not be telling her kid what he should or shouldn't be when he grows up (unless he says he wants to be a gangster or something).

In fact, telling your kid what not to do--unless there's a good reason for it (e.g. no hitting, no stealing, no touching hot stoves, etc.)--is a good way to breed resentful teenagers who think "My mom doesn't understand me!!"

I freely admit that walking the fine line between being mean enough that your kids are well behaved and not being so mean that your kids end up warped can be quite a balancing act...


To whomever said she might be joking around:

It's possible. If so, I feel sorry for the poor kid, because it's clear that he doesn't get her humor.

I am personally a big fan of obnoxious jokey comments, but I would never say them to a 9yo, because kids that age aren't completely out of the "take everything literally" stage. Joking with my teens is a completely different matter...

Super Science Fair Projects said...

This blog clearly illustrates the point that parents have a great influence on how their children act. Rebellion is a natural instinct for teens as it is their attempt to differentiate themselves from their parents and create their own identity. However, parents can help to guide the development of their child’s identify by providing them with the tools, support and opportunities to develop a positive identify. For example, they can encourage their kids to enter science fairs or science competitions.

Anonymous said...

To the people doing research in the UK:

GET THE F*CK OUT if you want an academic position. Go to the US. I was appalled the first couple of conversations I had with very brilliant female scientists who faced the same problems as you do. The UK system for getting an academic career is very vague and convoluted. Many countries, particularly the US, are not like this. There is a reason a lot of Europeans start their academic careers in the US.

Just remember, it's not like that everywhere.

Kim said...

I'm still trying to reconcile the set of "paleontologists" with the set of "people who lock themselves in their labs and never talk to anyone." All the paleontologists I know are very social and have funny tan lines.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, my mom would talk to me like that, it had the opposite effect. I went into science and later on, art, both fields that she was certain would lead to insane, ear-slicing-off penury.

So far my ears are intact. The kid will hopefully learn not to take the advice of parents at all time.

osiguy said...

I would much rather REAL scientists visited kids in school than Al Gore or Michael Mann :-)