The Bug Geek

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Science outreach may not be a useful currency for grad students – but we should do it anyway

About two weeks ago, an email from my advisor turned up in my inbox that said something to the effect of, “Canopy researcher Nalini Nadkarni is coming to give a talk and hang out with our lab. This is a great opportunity, so please come.”  When I pulled out my Top-Secret Graduate Advisor Decoder Ring and reread the email, it clearly said, “BE THERE OR I WILL THROTTLE YOU”.

I immediately marked the dates on my calendar.

Now, canopies are not my area of expertise. In fact, I mostly work in climatic zones where there are NO trees (or else the trees are small enough that you can reach up and touch the so-called “canopy”), so I really had no idea what the big deal was. I just figured that my advisor’s excitement stemmed from the fact that canopy work is one of the tools he uses to address questions about arthropod ecology.  Nevertheless, a few days before Dr. Nadkarni’s talk, I thought it would be prudent to take some time to acquaint myself with our visitor. So I googled, found her web page at Evergreen State College, and read her CV.

Result: MIND BLOWN. TOTAL BRAIN-CRUSH.

Then I watched both of her TED talks.  Yes, that TED. You can watch them here and here. My brain-crush amplified exponentially. Not only was she an incredibly prolific and well-respected scientist, she was also an extraordinary advocate of science outreach. *swoon*  In the final days leading up to the talk, I was all ohboyohboyohboy.

My advisor asked me to live-tweet the event, something I’d never done before, and I gave it a try. From those tweets, I created my first Storify (an application that compiles social media soundbites). You can read my Storify summary of Dr. Nadkarni’s talk here: http://storify.com/GeekInQuestion/nalini-nadkarni-talk-at-mcgill-university 

Some of the last few points she made were among the most poignant for me:

She was definitely preaching to the choir, in my case.  The Q & A period allowed me ask something that’s been on my mind. It was similar, actually, to a question I recently asked about teaching.

I stood at the microphone (a little nervously), and said something like: “I’m a grad student. One thing I’m passionate about is science outreach with both specialist and non-specialist audiences. However, we grad students repeatedly get told that the only important currency of academia is our publications, and that science outreach is not a good use of our time. Clearly, you’re someone who thinks it’s important. What do you say to this idea that it’s not valid or important work, and how do you find the time?”

Her answer, I thought, was both honest and encouraging. It also very much reflected a general philosophy that threaded through her discussions of her work and her outreach activities.  The philosophy seems to be: “There are systems that have been in place for a long time. These systems are not likely to be changed any time soon. There is little point in trying to change a system if you want to advance you own ideals or goals: you’d probably be wasting your time. Rather, find ways to work both with and outside the system, and create your own opportunities.”

Basically, she said this: If you’re interested in working in academia, then you need to work within that well-established (and unlikely-to-be-changed) system and generate the required currency. Do your research, and do your publications. As a grad student, your outreach contributions may not be recognized or valued.  You may not be able to do the kind of outreach you’d like, either because of the time or resources required. But go ahead and do the outreach stuff anyways, in whatever capacity you’re able.  Later on in your career, when you have access to the resources and as long as you’re working for an institution that accommodates it, you can expand the outreach component of your work in bigger and more meaningful ways.

What I heard was, “Play the game and pay your dues BUT don’t be afraid to also work outside the system in the meantime: in the long run it will pay off“.

I think an additional underlying message was: If doing outreach is a reflection of your values as a scientist – if it’s important to you and personally satisfying – then there’s no reason not to do it just because “the system” says it doesn’t matter.

March to the beat of your own drummer, in other words.

What do you all think?

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26 responses to “Science outreach may not be a useful currency for grad students – but we should do it anyway

  1. jessofthebugs March 12, 2012 at 7:56 AM

    I do outreach because I love science and want to share that. Science is fun and I really do think it makes a difference. My best hope is that maybe a kid sees me doing science and is turned on to the possibilities of a Science career. Maybe it’s not necessary for one’s career, but it’s good for the soul

    • TGIQ March 13, 2012 at 2:12 PM

      I completely agree. Even if I had a crystal ball, and a glimpse into it revealed that absolutely ZERO of my outreach activities would help me get a job 5 years from now, I would still do it, simply because I love it. Outreach is closely tied to my love of teaching, and you’re right – it just takes making a difference in one kid’s life to make it worthwhile. I’m glad others are out there sharing the love!

  2. Ted C. MacRae March 12, 2012 at 8:08 AM

    I know your career aspirations are academic, but this question actually has broader application. There seems to be a little bit different attitude between industry and academia regarding outreach. My current and previous employers (spanning more than 2 decades) have always strongly encouraged outreach activities by employees, in each case with little direct involvement in the precise subject or type of outreach. I spend lots of time in grade school classrooms and on middle school field trips talking a lot about bugs in general and very little about the specifics of my industry. My companies seem to realize that future success depends in part on access to well-qualified job candidates, and one way to help ensure that is to have current employees get excited about science.

    • TGIQ March 13, 2012 at 2:15 PM

      Now, see, this is interesting to me. I know I’ve seen PR-type folks from industry at various shows, conferences etc, but I was NOT aware that other kinds of outreach are also encouraged, especially with regards to kids! It’s interesting that a company like yours can see the value of getting young people excited about a particular field in order to ensure some long-term security for the company, but academia (in many cases) is failing to do the same.

  3. Jennifer March 12, 2012 at 8:10 AM

    I am glad I am at a Land Grant in the U.S. with an outreach/extension component of my position. I think it is critical for the future of funding and to generate interest in younger folks to become scientists. I really think it is the best part of my job!

    • TGIQ March 13, 2012 at 2:18 PM

      Ok, I’m still getting up to speed on my US higher education terminology, so help me out. (I did google, but…) What is a Land Grant, or perhaps a better question is how does a Land Grant differ from a “regular” college? Is outreach/extension a normal thing in Land Grants?
      Nomenclature aside, I’m glad to hear that you have a position that not only permits, but encourages, your participation in outreach! Awesome!

      • BioBob March 13, 2012 at 5:41 PM

        land grant uni’s are tasked with outreach to the agricultural industry via Ag Extension. This includes identification and recommending treatment for pests, and in general improving the husbandry of animals, growing of crops, etc. Land Grants also involved in community based ag education like 4H.

        Land Grant Uni’s are typically granted what used to be Federal Lands for use in that agricultural mission.

  4. Ted C. MacRae March 12, 2012 at 8:10 AM

    err.. “have current employees get kids excited about science.”

    • TGIQ March 13, 2012 at 2:20 PM

      Ha! I thought it made just as much sense the “typo” way – give employees a non-work (and theoretically less constrained) outlet for their enthusiasm about their work! Nothing like talking bugs with 10-year-olds to bring out the kid in you! :D

  5. Brigette March 12, 2012 at 8:18 AM

    I concur wholeheartedly! I think my biggest goal aside from doing actual research is to get other people excited about insects and life in general. To show people things they might not otherwise see (like caterpillars) or to give them a different perspective (through my plush bugs). I love doing craft shows and having so many people say “this is so cute!!!” while holding a plush tomato hornworm or a cockroach. Being a grad student is my job but it isn’t my entire life. I know it is for some people. But I’m not one of them. I’ve got a lot of other ways I want to contribute to science and to the world.

    • TGIQ March 13, 2012 at 2:22 PM

      I love your unique approach to getting people interested – the plushies are not only gorgeous, but fun and approachable! What a great way to get people who might otherwise be squidged out excited about bugs! I also agree that being a well-rounded person, who makes different kinds of contributions, both academic and non-academic, will serve one better in the long run.

  6. Chris Buddle March 12, 2012 at 8:41 AM

    Good post. Nalini’s message is a strong one – you need some credibility (i.e., part of the reason of her success was certainly because she had an impressive list of scientific publications before really devoting energy to outreach), and she made it clear that her particular institution did provide an ‘environment’ that was (relatively) conducive to outreach. So, the ability to do outreach as part of the academic world will certainly vary by institution. Fundamentally, you can and should do both (i.e., the academic pubs AND outreach), but this requires some sacrifices, and requires VERY effective time management skills, and very good communication skills. in my opinion and experience, this entire package (pubs, time management, communication) is a relatively rare combination of traits, and that may be why relatively few academics engage in effective outreach. And, finally, I liked her comment that perhaps even less than ‘perfect’ outreach can still be effective. I laughed at this point, as I have certainly done outreach activities where I was stretching the limits of my expertise!!

    • TGIQ March 13, 2012 at 2:24 PM

      I think that last bit WAS a good point, Chris! Even if we make mistakes and have to laugh at ourselves, that in itself can communicate that scientists are not perfect, only human in fact, and it could perhaps even make us more approachable to someone who might otherwise feel nervous about making “a mistake” by asking “a stupid question”!

  7. SciencePlug March 12, 2012 at 11:36 AM

    Great Post!
    Meeting aTED talker is freaking exiting and I will find time to look at her talks on the internet.
    As you said, outreaching is very dismissed by old “academia dinosaurs”. I have my own explanation: been out there in front of your REAL audience is scary. Among other scientists we feel powerful and controlled. If I say to a scientist: “look, I discovered this and that”, they will likely understand the beauty and the meaning of this and acknowledge my work. While “real people”, well, they wanna see two things: how well their tax-money have beed spent OR a funny and entertaining science, like some popular TV-show where guys jumps from tree to test the earth gravity (with all my love, @GregFoot).
    Amen to all that Nadkarni said, and good luck to all of us.
    It takes gut to be on the front-line.

    • TGIQ March 13, 2012 at 2:27 PM

      You’ve raised an interesting idea – that perhaps fear keeps many people out of the spotlight and out of the public eye. I suspect, though, that there are nearly as many new/up-and-coming scientists that are nervous about public outreach as there are “dinosaurs”. I think the bigger issue may simply that old ideas of “who science is for” remain heavily entrenched in the culture of academia – and that usually “science is for scientists” remains the dominant notion (sadly). I think, though, that this is starting to change with younger generations of scientists, for the most part (I’m encouraged, anyways!) :D

  8. Derek Hennen March 12, 2012 at 1:48 PM

    She makes a good point, but she sounds a bit fatalistic about the current system, saying that it won’t change anytime soon. I think with the push for open science and other metrics of measuring a scientists’ contributions, we’re going to enter a new system that emphasizes pursuits outside of solely publishing. Integrating the internet even deeper with science is going to change the system faster than any of us probably realize.

    Aside from that, I think she’s spot on. It’s a reality that in the short-term, yeah, we’re not going to change the current system because it’s a longer slog than that. So buckle down and work within the system, but also don’t ignore outreach opportunities. After all, your audience isn’t the only one that benefits from your presentation: your public speaking skills and organizational skills improve each time you’re involved in outreach. I recently landed a job that I might not have without my public speaking experience and the passion I showed for science. If I wasn’t involved with science outreach, I might not have gotten that.

    Plus, who would you rather hire: standard scientist or someone with the passion and public speaking skills of Neil deGrasse Tyson?

    • TGIQ March 13, 2012 at 2:31 PM

      I don’t think that NN was really saying “things will NEVER” change, it was more like, “things have a tendency to change very slowly, especially if they’re well-rooted in old habits” (yes, that was a tree analogy :P) I also believe that the system is eventually doing to change – but I don’t think it’s going to happen by the time I start looking for a job in academia (within the next 5 years). Change will happen, and it will begin to happen more quickly as more people with new ideas about how the system SHOULD look enter it, but it’s going to take some time.
      But more importantly, CONGRATS! I knew you had applied for a job recently, I’m glad to hear the selection process went well! Whoo-hoo! :D

  9. Andy Farke March 12, 2012 at 5:00 PM

    This is an excellent post, although the situation varies greatly depending on the field and one’s own career goals. As a museum curator, public outreach is an essential part of my position (and indeed, one of my mandates for the first year on the job was to create a workshop on paleontology for area public school teachers). More and more museums (the type where many fresh Ph.D.s in natural history land) are emphasizing public outreach skills in their job descriptions; in fact, most of the announcements I can recall from the past year have had this kind of engagement as a key part of the position. The bottom line is that traditional jobs in academia are getting scarcer relative to the number of graduates, and students who focus only on a single skill-set are far less employable!

    • TGIQ March 13, 2012 at 2:34 PM

      Thanks for sharing your unique perspective, Andy! Like Ted, I think you’ve highlighted some important distinctions between academic and “non-academic” jobs. My advisor gave me some good advice recently: “be good at everything”. In other words, be a good researcher, colleague, teacher, outreach-er, etc. Be well-rounded. I think, based on what you’re saying, this might be a winning approach for when one eventually faces the job market!

  10. Pingback: Why scientists excel at outreach activities | Arthropod Ecology

  11. Africa Gomez March 13, 2012 at 1:29 PM

    What a wonderful post. I completely agree with you. It is realistic – on your own you can’t change the system – but optimistic about working around the system and create your own ways to do outreach. All academics should be involved in outreach, not only graduate students, it should be part of being a scientist.

    • TGIQ March 13, 2012 at 2:36 PM

      Thanks, Africa :) I’m in the same camp, and think that scientists should just include outreach in their routine activities, even if it isn’t immediately (or ever) recognized by their institutions as being “academically” valuable. I also completely see it as part of the job.

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