A Quest of Science and Society
by Panthea Heydari
Graduate school, especially for scientists, is often considered a bubble from the real world. We student scientists are supposed to be blissfully ignorant to the life beyond our lab benches and outside the confines of mountains of highlighted Pubmed papers. We talk in scientific jargon and balk at the idea of press releases that do not include the full methods section of our carefully dissected experimental paradigms. But this is not really the mantra of the University of Southern California…of the USC Graduate School. USC prides itself on producing not only productive scientists but also well-rounded persons. In today’s age, that well roundedness is the golden ticket to Charlie’s Chocolate Factory where grants are free flowing, papers accepted, and science glamorized at the level of celebrity (which, for the record, I think it should be!).
Let’s talk about the theme and dichotomy of being a graduate student (and in my case, scientist) and a “person”. What does this mean? Is it some esoteric abstraction of wanting to live a complicated and deep life? In reality, should I forsake the day-to-day hubbub of Los Angeles and only be concerned with my own type of science, with no regard to my peers or to who decides on my funding?
Where do I draw that line between mad scientist and productive member of society?
At the risk of sounding like our forlorn great-grandparents, times are different and things are a-changing. The days of walking uphill both ways to school may have changed with the advent of the Culver City Expo Line but our generations of scientists (and graduate students) have challenges that fundamentally question our myopic points of view. Is our particular research really the only thing worth funding? Should there be a hierarchy of science? Does our home department, type of degree, or lab location matter? Are we so separate that from the public in our ability to pick up a Western Blot technique or analyze functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) data?
The nature of our economy and the demands of society have (and should) force student scientists to become more integral members of the community at large. We cannot continue with science being an abstract notion for the elite few—instead, we need it to be more collaborative. Here, there is a shift and fundamental need to still live as a person while we continue as a graduate student. Today, scientists find themselves at an exciting crossroads where interdepartmental programs are becoming more prevalent, where cross collaborations are promoted, and where the view of the scientist drudging along in a lab without a sense of the world at large is diminishing.
There is a need for integration of other disciplines, of social interaction at conferences, of talking the talk and expressing science to the public. For example, take the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, which, among many of their projects, investigates the relationship between music and the brain using neuroscience methods. Or the mind-blurring number rows upon rows upon rows of posters at the Society for Neuroscience Conference where Alzheimer’s disease Amyloid-Beta plaque analysis is presented alongside cognitive representations of the self and testosterone replacement levels in mice. Or the sold-out TedX Brain Conference at CalTech where neuroscientists, psychologists, and researchers parlayed their life’s work in 15 minutes. These are all examples of community involvement in science and scientists walking the line as a member of society.
I propose a blog to address these notions of the graduate student scientist versus the person. How do I work towards going to a collaborative conference to promote my work when I cannot fully fit into the bubble of one specific department? What does it mean to be a woman in science and should that even matter? How do I appropriately promote my science to the public, when for years I have been part of the science nerds that, by social norms, are the awkward kids that play with volcanoes and lack in social skills? Where do I go for resources on how to be a “productive member of a society”?
I welcome you to my blog for The Graduate School, “The NeuroPerson”, and hope that in my attempt to become a “neuroscientist + person,” you start to question your own “person-dom” as well.
Send me your thoughts here!