Avoiding assumptions and scientific faux pas

Never confuse Star Trek fans with Star Wars fans

The first rule of science is ‘question everything, assume nothing’. Even if your results turn out exactly as you hypothesized, it is still not real until it has been repeated in triplicate with all controls accounted for. This basic principle seems to be alone in the world of science.

Out in the real world, the idea of ‘question everything’ is certainly not applied. This obviously includes much of the information gleaned from the internet and also those quirky one line “did you know?” pseudo-facts in magazines or drink bottles.

It is also surprisingly rare in everyday social interactions. I overheard a conversation recently:

“You’re a scientist,” said Person A to Person B, “so you like Star Trek, right?” An awkward silence ensued, much like after asking a woman when the baby is due without first establishing that she is pregnant. Or being asked which part of England you’re from when you are actually Australian. Or vice versa.

Person B scoffed at the idea. And then changed the subject to rave about the upcoming Star Wars movie.

A tip for non-science fiction aficionados: Never make assumptions about a person’s science fiction preferences. It will end badly. Usually with a Jedi mind trick, a Vulcan nerve pinch or, worse, a lengthy explanation as to why one is infinitely better than the other.*

Many people also make assumptions about scientists themselves. On one hand they assume scientists know everything and on the other they presume scientist have not even thought to check the basics.

I’ve had many fascinating conversations with non-scientists that included topics like “You’re a scientist so you should know this…” No, I’m an organic chemist not a zoologist, sorry. Or “It’s not global warming it’s just solar activity…” Because climate scientists didn’t think to check that first.

And this old gem that keeps resurfacing: “NASA scientists spent a billion dollars to make a pen that writes in space and they could have just used a pencil!” Except that pencils can be hazardous in zero-gravity, particularly when surrounded by lots of expensive equipment.

Avoiding assumptions and questioning everything is a first line of defense against the spread of myths and misinformation. And it’s a good way to avoid sci-fi nerd rage.

*For the record, I’m a huge fan of both and will talk a lot about them at every opportunity.

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Science fiction vs reality

Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads. Just make sure there’s high-speed internet.

The future was bright and efficient. Hover boards and flying cars the norm and pollution something only old people reminisced about. At least that’s was the plan. The discrepancy between science fiction and reality has never been so acute as on the day a young Marty McFly was supposed to come flying in from the past in a DeLorean to set the future right. But despite this crippling disappointment, science and technology have come a long way in the past 30 years.

The remarkable boom of the digital age has seen computers converted from glorified 1985 calculators to sleek 2015 machines that are indispensable. A day without food? No problem. A whole day without FaceBook? Traumatizing.

Humans are after all social animals and anything that can connect us faster to other humans, and more humans, is going to be taken up with relish. Mobile phones took the world by storm but that still relied on talking to one person at a time. Text messaging could cover more ground in shorter amounts of time than a phone call and email could go further, wider and longer. Being able to email using a mobile phone was always going to be a winning combination.

Video calls are real. Wall-sized TVs are real. Paying for goods by waving a card in the general direction of the card-reader or just by pressing a button on a computer, also real. Listening to music on the go for hours on end without having to carry a CD case is just a bonus.

This is also a golden age of medical miracles. The level of understanding of the causes of cancers and how to detect and treat them has grown exponentially in the past 30 years. Likewise understanding and treatment for HIV, Parkinson’s disease and malaria.

We may not have everything predicted by 1980s sci-fi stories but we have come a long way. And even I have to admit that a hover board that can go across water is not as awesome as, say, early cancer detection. Or even FaceBook.

It would still be cool, though.

Lab fashion: when safe meets cool

Will lab fashion ever be as universally accepted as active wear?

Orange is the new blue in nitrile gloves as a new wave of safety wear enters the market. These are just like normal nitrile gloves but orange for “Higher Visibility!” and are therefore infinitely safer and I need them. Because they’re orange. And that’s just cool.

Lab wear has come a long way in a short amount of time. Back in the early lab days there were the black rimmed safety glasses, blue gloves, a baggy lab coat and a top pocket full of pens, spatulas and the ubiquitous timer.

This getup was fine to wear in the lab. Everyone looked the same and no one was in a position to judge. Crossing between labs in safety wear is also fine.

But once I wandered in a direction that was not immediately between Lab A and Lab B, forgetting about my safety wear. It was a strange feeling. The further I got from the lab, the more it became uncomfortable to wear all this safety apparel. Not to mention the strange looks I got.

There must be a mathematical equation for the maximum distance one can be from a lab when wearing lab gear and not look out of place. Like the maximum distance you can be from a beach before beach wear looks weird. Pretty sure there’s an Ig Nobel in it for whoever works that out.

Now lab wear is sleek. Tailored lab coats with designer lapels and cuffs, safety glasses with tortoise shell rims, and discreet black gloves in case you’re not feeling the orange.

It is becoming a sort of essential gear in the same way that active wear has dominated fitness. There was a time when exercise was possible in tracksuit pants and baggy t-shirts. Now any sort of activity requires the latest active wear. Will science soon become impossible without wearing new-wave lab gear?

On the bright side, we may be able to wear our safety gear further from the lab than ever before.

Standing out from the crowd

Standing out from the crowd is becoming more essential for successful research.

The old adage “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is a lie. It’s what you know and who you know that counts. Particularly in research. The foundation of research is knowledge and solid experimental designs and definitely you need to know your stuff. But there’s also no point doing marvellous research if your data is never published, never read or never cited. It’s also now essential to know people to get the collaborations to get the grants to start research.

This is where self-promotion and networking become critical. Happily there are many avenues for making your work stand out in a data-drenched world.

Mainstream media

Believe it or not, researchers will pay attention to mainstream media. This can be a really useful way of telling people about the great work you’re doing as well as hearing about what other research is out there. A snippet on the nightly news, a feature on a radio station or a stint on one of the science shows can get you noticed by someone outside your field in areas that you may not even know exist.

The best way is to pitch a story to a journalist. Preferably use an angle about something that is currently being discussed in the media to which your work somehow – no matter how loosely – relates.

Also let a journalist know if you’re doing something that just sounds awesome. Like using the Synchrotron for wine research, for example. Or going on an expedition to the Arctic tundra to find new bioactive peptides that may be the next cure for heart disease.

A media release after you’ve published your research in a peer-reviewed journal can still be a good way to go but put some thought into the timing of the media release to get you bigger bang for you buck. It may be worth holding off on releasing the news to coincide with a big event or conference in your field at a time when more people in the field are likely to be tuning into the mainstream media.

Social media

Published a paper recently? Tweet about it! Doing something cool? Take a photo and Instagram it! There are so many avenues for social media it is a missed opportunity not to utilize them.

The more people know that you’re working in a particular area the more likely they are to seek out your work amongst the – probably – hundreds of papers in the field. And the more people who read your work, the more likely your paper is to get cited.

So do it, start a Twitter account…and use it!

Non-peer-reviewed publications

Publishing in a peer-reviewed journal is the benchmark standard of any research scientist and close attention is paid to nuanced differences in citation indices. Yet non-peered reviewed publications invite a wider readership and can therefore also be of value.

These publications can be industry journals, broader science journals like New Scientist, and even society publications for members, such the Royal Australian Chemical Institute’s rag, Chemistry Australia. It is well worth getting mentioned in these types of journals to get more traffic to your peer-reviewed publications.

Online resources

Other, less conventional publications are also of value. An industry blog can have a greater audience than a printed publication and some popular science sites such as Sciengist.com are good for broadening your readership. It is worth keeping track of which blogs are being written in your field and who is reading them.

AGMs

Crazy, I know. As well as scientific society publications, annual general meetings of these organisations can be a great way to diversify your networks and mix with people in slightly different fields. The broader your society memberships, the broader your potential collaborations and the happier the potential funding body.

Conferences

The biggest perk of working in science is the international conference. Even attending an interstate or even local conference is nothing to sneeze at. These are the biggest gatherings of researchers and the best and most important networking events. Networking is essential. Tips for doing it right can be found here.

It is always important to speak to people in your field but also really interesting to speak to people outside your field. Poster sessions are a great way of finding out what other people are doing and why. The more people you can connect with at a conference the more likely useful ideas and collaborations will come your way.

All this networking and getting noticed takes time. But it will be time well spent if a chance encounter leads to another citation, new discovery, or even that elusive successful grant application.