Who gets to be a scientist?

Who gets to be a scientist? And what even is science for that matter?

If you asked a random person on the street they might say something about how scientists are super smart, mostly geniuses, or only people who can get into the top schools, get a PhD, and work in a laboratory. A lot of people might think of scientists as people who work in a lab wearing a white coat doing experiments with microscopes and beakers. Depending on who you asked, some people may say that scientists are old and White and Male. 

Opinion: Can Prizes Help Women Shatter Science's Glass Ceiling ...
Source: https://cdn.the-scientist.com/assets/articleNo/66520/aImg/33891/women-in-science-l.jpg

People who say that last thing wouldn’t be completely wrong to say that either. Science in the West has definitely been an exclusive discipline, and many women and people of color still have to fight tooth and nail to get the same opportunities and level of respect as more privileged people. 

Part of this has to do with how we communicate science within the field and with people outside of the field. Science has its own language. Vocabulary, syntax, and structure all come together within the discipline and when you know the language, it’s easy to understand others and be understood yourself. But this language also poses a real barrier to entry for people who aren’t fluent in scientific vernacular, and because this vernacular is most closely related to “standard” American English, people who speak other vernacular versions of English have an even harder time breaking into the community and culture of scientists.

“Science articulated in schools tends to value a particular way of articulating one’s understanding phenomena” (Brown, 2006, p.100)

Brown, B. A. (2006). “It isn’t no slang that can be said about this stuff”: Language, identity, and appropriating science discourse. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 43(1), 96-126.

What if language wasn’t a barrier though? What if instead of gatekeeping who gets to be a scientist based on culture, speech, or identity science classrooms and scientists everywhere embraced that diversity? What if instead of seeking to produce uniformity in science class, we sought to sustain, amplify, celebrate the diversity of the classroom? What if we invited everyone to be a scientist?

What if we invited everyone to be a scientist?

The nature of science is really what I’m getting at here. If science is about the scientific method, experimentation, and knowing facts, then I don’t want anything to do with it, and I certainly don’t want to teach it. I love science and I want to show my future student that they can love science too because I truly believe that engaging with science, being a scientist requires only one single criterion: Curiosity. 

Curiosity - CreativeMornings themes
Source: https://media.creativemornings.com/uploads/theme/image/66/Curiosity_Illustration_Layout_creativemornings.com_themepage.png

The thing that makes scientists different from anyone else is that they ask questions. They see the world and they think, “what else can I figure out about this place?” Science is not about knowing all the facts, it’s about taking the facts that you have in front of you, and trying to figure out what else you can learn. Science is questions, it’s pushing the status quo. You don’t have to be a genius to be a scientist (thankfully, otherwise I’d be out of luck). You just have to be curious, and you have to let that curiosity move in you to generate new discoveries and new questions.

“You might say a scientific investigation begins with all the scientific work and knowledge the scientist brings to the lab. It is that knowledge, combined with observation (usually of something the scientist finds puzzling or at least interesting), that leads to the genesis of an investigation” (Colburn, 2003, p. 87)

Colburn, A., & National Science Teachers Association, Arlington, VA. (2003). Nature of science in  The lingo of learning: 88 education terms every science teacher should know NSTA Press.

The best kind of knowledge starts out as a question, and the knowledge inside a scientist’s head has to start somewhere. It can start small in a high school classroom. Then, that knowledge grows and grows as the scientist asks more questions, finds more answers, and asks more questions. 

A Few Introductions

Hello all, and welcome to my own little world of science! My goal here will be to find the aspects of a seemingly mundane topic that explode with fascinating and surprising details when you look closely. 

Let me start by introducing myself. My name is Lauren and I am a preservice biology teacher. I am one of ten individuals studying this year in the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education Get Real Science! program. I am so thankful/fortunate/excited to be a part of such a special program, with an emphasis on social justice, situated learning, and culturally sustaining pedagogy. Most of all though, I am excited to be on my way to a lifetime of sharing my love of biology with students!

My graduation last year! I got degrees in Neuroscience and Psychology from University of Rochester.

What I love most about science is the fact that it really is a fascinating and empowering discipline. If students want to be scientists, they don’t have to be great at math, or have a wealth of existing knowledge, or even have previous experience with science. All you need to be a scientist is curiosity! That’s what I love: science isn’t about knowing all the answers, it’s about asking all the questions. 

My one true love in biology is neuroscience (that’s what I studied as an undergraduate). There’s something really special about learning how so many neurons work together to make up a brain. But really I think that with the right lens, and with enough digging, any topic can reveal an exciting and interesting learning opportunity at its heart. That’s where the name of this blog came from. I really think that there isn’t a single topic in science that’s unremarkable. Everything from plant anatomy to the movement of a projectile can be cool, as long as you look at it the right way. Nothing’s mundane in science!

An actual fMRI of my brain! I piloted an imaging study a few years ago, and was rewarded with this! I love all brains, but this photo is my favorite brain photo.

Now that you know a little bit about me, I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite creatures: the (not so humble) mantis shrimp!

Look at this guy! Absolutely beautiful! Mantis shrimp belong to the suborder Unipeltata, and there are more than 400 known species. These crustaceans commonly grow to be almost a foot long, but many get even bigger, and some are much smaller. They get their name from the way they actually stalk and hunt their prey. Different species use different methods, but the primary classes are spearers and smashers – they either stab their prey with sharp front claws, or they clobber them using strong club-like claws. 

Check out this video if you want to see some predation in action!
As a warning, it includes footage of a mantis shrimp killing and eating a hermit crab.

These little monsters are amazing, but what I love most about them are those eyes. Humans, as you may have heard, have two classes of optic receptors in their eyes – rods which would let you see in black-and-white are really good at telling the intensity of light, but not so much the color (or wavelength) of light. Cones give us the ability to see color. Most humans have three, and they allow us to see all the colors of the rainbow. A trained eye can see millions of colors! People who are red-green colorblind only have two cones, and they only see about 10.000 distinct colors. 

Imagine how many colors you can see. Now imagine how much visual information a mantis shrimp might be perceiving with its 12-16 different types of cones (the number varies by species)! They can see polarized light (which has to do with the way that the wave of light moves), deep ultraviolet, and far-red light. Imagine what a mantis shrimp looks like to other mantis shrimp; imagine what a rainbow would look like through their eyes! This incredible eyesight helps them to be expert hunters, and generally the kinds of fellas other sea creatures do not want to mess with.

A visualization of how the mantis shrimp sees polarized light reflecting from fish scales

Now you know a little bit about me and a little bit about mantis shrimp – the rainbow-colored, magic-eyed crustaceans that I love. In this blog, I want to keep them in mind – I want to be looking closely and creatively about all sorts of scientific phenomena. There’s always something new and fascinating to discover.

An illustration of a mantis shrimp by Richard Lydekker (1896)