What do you do?

When introducing yourself to another, the first point of call is to exchange names, easy for most of us, unless your surname is Nahasapeemapetilon. Often the second obligatory nicety is to ask so and so what he or she does for a living, or perhaps what they study. In return this question is batted back at you and I’m always surprised at how a question as simple as ‘what do you do?’ causes many scientists to sigh sorrowfully thinking ‘here we go again’.

When I tell others I have majored in zoology, 99% of the time the response is, ‘So you work at the zoo?’ If you’re a zoologist you will understand that zoologist does not always = zookeeper just as a meteorologist doesn’t study meteors. I myself don’t profess to know what a cytologist or analytical chemist does and certainly don’t mean to sound patronising, but to explain this to everyone you meet can become tiresome. I’m sure this obstacle is faced by many of you and I imagine is even harder to overcome if you’re a bioinformatics scientist or a photonics engineer. Heaven forbid you’re an experimental quantum physicist!

I fear that this first hurdle in communication, as simple as it may be, has left some older (or shall I say more experienced) scientists disillusioned with the general public. I must admit that after telling others I study mating behaviour in fairy-wrens, the perplexed expressions once led me to give up and restrict myself to conversation with fellow science enthusiasts. If any of you have attended conferences you will know how refreshing it is to be surrounded by strangers who know what you do without questioning why you are doing it, but science for science’s sake doesn’t hold up too well out there in the real world.

Science Communication class inspired me to get back in the game. The aim of this blog contribution is to remind all you scientists out there that we should be psyched to teach others what our professions mean. As Jenny said, we should not look at the explanation of what we do and why as a task. We should, and I know many of you are, be excited about telling others. When we fail, try and try again. The more of us that succeed in expressing what it is to be a physicist, chemist, or whatever you may be, the less people will need clarification in future.

I dream of the day when, ‘I’m a biotechnician’ is as easily understood as ‘I’m a policeman’, and when the term biotechnician is not underlined in red as being misspelt by Microsoft Word. By starting with the basics this may aid in the explanation of research and results while adding credibility to our work.  If people knew what a climate scientist was perhaps more would place their trust in them rather than a certain Herald Sun ‘journalist’ (i.e. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named).                       Wikimedia Commons.

One Response to “What do you do?”

  1. zoe says:

    So true. I’m lucky in that I’m studying physiology and anatomy, and want to go on to study medicine be a surgeon – that part is quite easy to explain. Harder, though, is the research project I will be doing over the summer at the Florey Institute. I face two problems here: the first is that I’m not supposed to go into detail about what the research is, exactly, as it is currently unpublished and therefore not OK to spread around. The second though is that generally speaking, I find it difficult to explain what I’ll be doing broadly without boring people to tears.

    My current tactic is to say “I’ll be doing brain surgery on rats and looking at slices of the brains under a microscope” which is technically true, but not what the research is really about and also sounds kind of cold and mean. People think it sounds cool though and it’s a relatively straightforward thing to say.

    Your article has inspired me to think a little harder about how to explain this to people because I, at least, think it’s fascinating and it would be wonderful to try and convey that!

    I will also be checking with my supervisor exactly what I can and cannot share to make this task a little easier 😛