Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Young Pup

Every once in a while I give a public lecture on a topic related to my research. These talks are challenging to give in a coherent and interesting way because the audience is so much more diverse in scientific experience than even a typical introductory science class. There is also a huge range in age: in a recent talk, my audience ranged in age from 12 to 80-something.

In this most recent public lecture, I spoke in a large dimly lit auditorium. I used a microphone, paced around on a stage-like thing, showed some cool images, and talked about some interesting research questions and results. At the end of the talk, I answered questions from the audience; some questions were very fun to answer, some were easy, some had no answers, and some were bizarre. After the general question session, some audience members came to the front to ask me additional questions one-on-one.

One man (estimated age: 60-something) came up to me and looked at me very closely. Then he said “I am so relieved to see that you aren’t actually as young as I thought you were.” I pointed to the wrinkles at the corners of my eyes and said “Observe the dramatic evidence for aging.” And he said “I know, that’s what I was just looking at.” He said he’d spent my whole talk thinking I was a “young pup” and it “really bothered” him to think that someone so young could “know so much” and “be so smart”. He repeated that he was very relieved to know that I am not so young.

OK.. whatever. I have definitely learned a lot over the years, though sometimes I think that the wisdom I have accumulated through experience is being eroded at the same (or greater) rate by the effects of aging. At least I can still put on a good (science) show.

I think I could have done without that particular conversation, though, and maybe next time I will ask the person who introduces me to be sure to mention the dates that I acquired my various degrees. That way, the “old dogs” in the audience can do the math and figure out that I am deeply middle aged.

Despite the random encounters with strange people, I enjoy giving these talks. It’s nice to see big groups of real people who are interested in Science, who turn out for an evening’s random Science talk because they want to be there, and who are thrilled when they learn something new.


Bruce Sabin said...

Look on the bright side, the fact that you’re a woman, and “so smart,” was apparently inconsequential to him. He just didn’t want you to be so young that he had to worry he might be losing his game. See how far women have come in science.

Douglas Natelson said...

On a trip to another school a couple of weeks ago, I had four people in 24 hours tell me that I looked too young to be a professor. Thanks, I guess. Kind of an odd thing to tell someone you just met.

butterflywings said...

Ha! Yes it is odd how people think it entirely socially acceptable to comment on someone's age who they do not know, to say they look young...yet you can't turn around and say, gosh you look really old!
I get this 9the too-young thing), the other day at work someone thought I was a work experience intern! I'm 27 so it is quite reassuring to apparently appear to be 20/ 22 or so - more annoying that I STILL get ID-d. Grrr.
As my mother keeps saying, I will appreciate it in 10 years...guess your post backs that up!

Ms.PhD said...

Wow, that is so offensive. Especially since I sincerely doubt he would have said that to a man.

Anonymous said...

You know, I have to say, I frequently have to check with other people these days on how old they think someone might be--I'm realizing that when someone is between the ages now of 35 and 50, I can't really ballpark it as well as I used to. And it's a lot harder to guess for men than women--I recall actually when I was first in graduate school, I was having a meeting with 3 people, all of whom were tenured professors, only one of whom looked it, and because I only had their regular names, one of them really surprised me later when I realized that he was a) not a graduate student, b) not a postdoc but in fact c) a father of 3 kids, extremely well published, and about 15 years older than I'd given him credit for. I'm very glad I didn't say anything to give my assumption away at the time. I accidentally offended a young PI at a blood drive that way as a teenager and the embarrassment stuck with me.

EcoGeoFemme said...

That is a strange comment.
And butterflywings, I was recently asked for my ID to enter a concert. It was a 14 and over show! I am more than twice that age.

lkhoyt said...

I think old guys, especially, often think they're giving you a compliment with a comment like this, certainly not that you'd have a reason to take offense. I've had some permutation of the "professor" title for almost 10 years now and have constantly had people telling me "You don't look old enough to be a professor!" Soon I just started replying, "Oh, I'm not." Another possible answer: "I'm actually 74. I moisturize." And when students ask me point-blank how old I am (yes, this happens), I grin and say, "I can't think of how it could possibly benefit you to know that."

People gave me that "You'll-miss-it-when-it's-gone" line all the time, butterflywings. I realized a long time ago that I'd rather be taken seriously than thought youthful. I was right, now that I don't have to automatically establish my cred every time I meet someone, my job is a lot better.

Oh, and I can *totally* imagine some of the people I've worked with saying this to a young male as well.

sandy shoes said...

It's a compliment, clumsily delivered. Smile (optional) and say "did you enjoy the lecture?" or "I'm glad you enjoyed the lecture," depending on whether you want to reroute the conversation or dismiss it.

From someone in the field... offensive. From someone in the general public... eh. Whatcha gonna do.

Anonymous said...

is it really such a big deal?
Basically (awkwardly framed) the underlying statement is: you are so smart, and also look so young.

Men get this kind of comments all the time (asst. professors confused for postdocs or even grad students), and they don't get offended - just shrug it off. Women are far more self-conscious about their age, and therefore take any comment like that as a personal attack.

Female Science Professor said...

It's not a big deal and I didn't feel 'attacked'. That's a strange interpretation of what I wrote.