Making the Pursuit of Academic Science Less Selfish

– Written by Nucleus –

When the topic of choosing a career as an academic comes up, many of my colleagues view their choice as a selfless one. “I could be making a ton more money doing X or Y with half my education and working half the hours that I do.”

But when the topic arises with many of my colleagues who are Mexican-American, African-American, and other underrepresented minorities in science, they view their career choice not as selfless, but as selfish.

Why the discrepancy?

Golgi, a Mexican-American biologist and laboratory technician, hits the nail on the head with her previous post “Is Pursuing Biology Selfish?” when she broaches the topic of feeling guilty for pursuing a career in academia. Those underrepresented minorities that go on to obtain higher degrees usually do so to 1) obtain a medical degree or 2) become a teacher or social worker to go back and serve their communities. These are incredibly noble and needed professions, and I commend with the greatest respect all those who take such a path. But, how do doctors and teachers obtain their information? When they open their books to study to be doctors and teachers, where does that information they learn come from?

A: Research Scientists!!

For medical and educational professions to progress, we need Research Scientists! This is an indirect, albeit super important, way academic scientists help people. And to further help our communities, we need people from diverse backgrounds and diverse perspectives to expand our knowledge base and approach problems in more creative ways. I saw this short documentary at a conference that expands on this very topic.

So, how can we change the notion that pursuing academic science is selfish?

Well, one thing we can do right now is appeal to our need to directly help our communities.

That’s right – I said “our”.  I am also from an underrepresented ethnic group in science. I won’t be too specific though – there’s just SO FEW of us, and I don’t want to risk my anonymity or especially those of my fellow Brainy Birds. After all, we want this to be a free, safe space to discuss issues when and how we want.  (This reminds me of my new favorite saying I heard the other day – “Respect the pseud’, dude!”)

Ok great, you say. So how do we cater to this need to help our communities? How do we help erase this notion of academic science being a selfish endeavor, thus increasing its appeal to many minorities? I have some ideas – 3 in particular that I’ll list here. Please comment with your thoughts and ideas as well.

1. Change the way we describe the goals of courses and programs. Let’s make it more obvious how our course studies and research programs can serve our communities. Those of us who’ve been at this for a while know that research can yield huge benefits for people. Whether it be obvious, like studying diabetes, breast cancer, etc., or not so obvious, like studying basic cell function or physiology. Or even less obvious, like studying the vibrant mating dance of a rare, exotic bird – understanding biology at every level for whatever our personal reasons may be increases our understanding of how the world works. Expanding our knowledge expands our scope of thought, problem solving abilities, and creativity – all things that can and do benefit our communities. Let’s explore how we can reflect those sentiments – ingrain them – into the descriptions and goals of our courses and research programs.

2. Value outreach. A lot. If I had a dollar for everyone I heard complaining about how they’ve had to come up with/partake in outreach activities to make themselves more competitive for a fellowship or a grant, I could fund my own lab until the end of time. In my head, I slap them in the face and tell them to run home to their over-privileged families and complain over drinks at the country club. Ok, that’s a little harsh.  My friend invited me to his country club once for lobster and it was rather delightful. But let’s be real – outreach is INCREDIBLY undervalued in the scientific community. Granting agencies try to change that by making it mandatory, but the way it gets embellished in a lot of grant applications and reports is despicable. How can we change this? At the institutional level, outreach needs to be valued, in my opinion, alongside publication record for consideration of tenure. At the scientific community level, it needs to be sincerely commended, recognized, and admired. Besides this being a good thing to do for the sake of increasing science literacy and interest in general, it will help to fulfill that need (and, importantly, permit us more time and resources) to directly help our communities.

3. Continue fellowships/grants for underrepresented minorities. If I hadn’t been the recipient of funding from a few of these fellowships and grants, I almost guarantee you I would not be in science today – at least, not in academia. I’ve always had one foot out the door – so many interests, so many things I want to do and people I want to help. Getting funding to stay in the game made my decision to pursue academia easier. Agencies and institutions, keep supporting this type of funding and work on increasing it! And Haters, cram it. If you increase your outreach efforts, you, too, are eligible for a lot of these funding opportunities. I know many shiny white majority folk who do absolutely amazing things for increasing representation in the sciences – but if I told you who, I may reveal who this Brainy Birds is. And you gotta remember to respect the pseud’, dude.

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This entry was posted in Biology, Diversity, Graduate School, Increasing Diversity in Science, Mentorship and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Making the Pursuit of Academic Science Less Selfish

  1. Respecting the Pseud says:

    Spot on, especially about valuing outreach! As a graduate student very involved in outreach I find it hard to 1) Explain to my advisor and others why I’m not at the bench all the time and 2) Get others to respect the amount of time necessary to SUCCESSFULLY reach out to students/children/the public. True engagement takes a little bit of time, often more than an hour in an elementary classroom (though that’s a great start!). I’ve received compliments/questions from people about my CV on my research, interests, teaching, heck even my previous mentors, but NEVER on outreach. Time to change that and get talking about it!

  2. Dennis says:

    “When the topic of choosing a career as an academic comes up, many of my colleagues view their choice as a selfless one. “I could be making a ton more money doing X or Y with half my education and working half the hours that I do.””

    Choosing to make less money and work harder, doesn’t mean you don’t do it for your own satisfaction. It just means you value other things more. I even think, if all that keeps you going is the hope your work will offer society some major contribution some day, you probably should prepare for a life of frustration. Only a negligible percentage of (lucky) researchers gets this kind of acknowledgement.

    To me being a researcher is to crave satisfaction from ‘the flow’. You plunge into the undiscovered universe and discover amazing things, knowing there will never be a goal or an end – there is enough to discover for another billion lifetimes of research. My motivation is the appreciation of research in itself, the personal growth, and challenging myself intellectually. Science provides limitless opportunities for this.

    Doing science without ‘higher cause’ doesn’t mean you are less valuable for society. Maybe even the opposite. It may allow you to follow the path that your research takes you and thoroughly explore that path. But if you are desperately trying to satisfy your desire for societal appreciation, you might instead end up dabbling around all over the place, always following the latest hyped hypotheses in the field. Who knows?

    Of course we should reach out to the public and make sure it is known that without research there is only stagnation. But, every promise in the sense of ‘I will do A, then I know B and then I cure C’ is a lie, and the public must understand that. Such promises undermine the credibility of science as an enterprise. The public must understand that if you are exploring the unknown you can not predict the outcome of your research. You can only provide ‘educated guesses’. The way to get the public interested is to show them what we do, what we know and explain how and what we think and ignite their own imagination of what incredible things might become possible in future.

  3. transcrip says:

    I thought that under-represented student in science saw a career in science as “selfish” because it demands spending a lot of time away from family and not being around to contribute in maintaining the family. It is thought that developing scientist should move to different institutions from undergrad to grad school, then post-doc, then faculty. Depending on your science, there are only a few places to do it, or (at the faculty level) a few offers to do it at a certain institution. This entails being away from home for many years and not being around to help taking care of the family = feeling selfish.

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