by: Joy Gallagher
Chemistry doctoral candidate, Penn State University
"So what do you do?" seems innocent enough, but I've grown to dread this common question. As a 28-year-old woman working on my PhD in chemistry I answer and can almost mouth their response. "You must be really smart," or "Ugh, I hated chemistry," and then there's always, "Really? You're a chemist?"
I'm not sure what people expect, but yes, I'm a chemist and yeah, those are boobs. Women -- even attractive ones -- are scientists and science is sexy. I'm not saying that anyone would mistake Bill Nye for Brad Pitt, but what have we done is make your gadgets smaller and faster, medicine and diagnostics more effective, and your cars greener. Scientists brought fantasy to reality by demonstrating quantum levitation; watch out Harry Potter enthusiasts -- scientists have developed their version of an invisibility cloak. We turn Mission Impossible to possible -- self-erasing inks can encrypt your darkest secrets. If you're not sold yet, your make-up, sunscreen, beer, cologne, and more are all improved thanks largely in part to innovations and applications of science.
But education is coming up short. I was fortunate to have really passionate and interesting chemistry teachers in high school and college, coupled with a strong math education -- the concepts didn't get lost in the algebra. This administration has caught on, releasing results from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology report Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) this month which provides a blueprint for improving STEM education during the first two years of college.
We also have great Department of Commerce statistics that show over the past 10 years, growth in STEM jobs was three times as fast as growth in non-STEM jobs, STEM careers command higher wages (26% greater than their non-STEM counterparts), and STEM careers are projected to grow by 18% through 2018. Who wouldn't be turned on by those stats in this job climate?
Unfortunately, stereotypes and misconceptions are rampant. Many still view "The Scientist" as one of the characters from The Big Bang Theory. Although they do exist, I know plenty of jocks, musicians, hipsters, and hippies that are also scientists; there is no one-size fits all mold. We're probably to blame for a lot of this as we sometimes perpetuate an air of superiority, which feeds the mystique. There's an elitism that could use a healthy dose of checking our egos at the door. Scientists must learn to communicate more effectively. The solutions to the most pressing problems our planet will face in the next century will be found in science. Translating our work is much more than dumbing it down. We must integrate and educate people in a clear manner -- because not everyone is destined for careers in STEM fields, just like I'm not destined to work with children (kids scare the hell out of me).
For those of you who have chosen this career, I challenge you to be conscientious consumers of science in the media. Be mindful of agenda, opinion versus fact, and origin. Also be aware of how you're communicating the information, and the image you're portraying -- we are more than a bunch of socially awkward, misunderstood geeks playing with beakers and Bunsen burners. We are bright and talented thinkers and doers who happen to use science to make our world a little better, one molecule at a time.