Vanquishing the evil mad scientist image


Scientists aren’t all like this.

There is a palpable mistrust of science in the wider public and we scientists are largely to blame. Almost everyone uses the products of research everyday and yet trust issues against scientists have spawned and nurtured anti-science movements. Great efforts have been made to improve the scientist image, most notably the highly recommended Super Science Friends vimeo clip, but there is still much more we can do.

Mistrust of science is not ill-founded. Epic failures of ethics and the dearth of safety assessments in the past have left lasting legacies on many families as well as the environment. The atom bomb, chemical warfare and the repercussions of thalidomide are but a few events that have shaped public perception of scientists.

Enduring fictional mad scientists like Frankenstein and Moreau are also bad for our image. Although, in fairness, research scientists are a bit mad. I always maintained that is a direct product of having to do a PhD to become a research scientist. My hair was never this grey before the PhD, I’m sure.

The time has come for us scientists to change our image. Regulations for safety and ethics have improved exponentially to prevent the repeat of past disasters, and there have been monumental advancements across all areas of science, including health, ecosystem protection and food production.

Here are a few simple things that we can do to reclaim some trust in science:

  1. Teach scientific processes

Not everyone was taught how to assess data and weigh up evidence. These critical skills are the first port of call for getting a broader audience to engage with science. Improving the level of understanding about how scientists draw conclusions will make them more convincing.

  1. Be bold but accurate

Whenever results are presented to a broader audience, be bold in your statements but also accurate. Remember that common science terms like “this suggests…” and “this may cause…” just make it seem like we don’t know what we’re talking about and the message will be lost. People want answers and when scientists don’t deliver them confidently, they look to other authorities and this includes charlatans.

  1. Tell a story

Nothing engages an audience more than stories. Use stories to show the impacts of your research in a broader sense and include emotional interests like families, the community and the environment as well as enjoyment of lifestyle, of technology, of food and wine. Keep the underlying message straightforward and broad.

  1. Give science a friendly face

Scientists traditionally aren’t good communicators and for many years they were kept away from the public and not allowed to speak to the media. This also hasn’t done much for our image. To build trust, we need to step outside of the scientist caricature and show that we are just people. We work and eat and sleep and care for our families, the environment and the community. And sometimes we do other cool stuff. Recently there has been a trend on science company websites to show their employees as more than just scientists and this is just the sort of thing we need.

With time and communal effort, the evil scientist image will be vanquished. Then all we have to do is take down those evil corporations…

Living dangerously: The hidden hazards of lab research


Researchers experience this sort of adrenaline in everyday lab work. Almost.

The lab is a dangerous place, as recent occupational health and safety regulations demonstrate. From a world where keyboards come with health warnings – seriously – office-based risk-assessment officers must have had a meltdown when they first entered a lab. They would have watched, gibbering, as chemists washed their hands in benzene and mouth-pipetted concentrated hydrochloric acid solutions. More recently we’ve honed the lab protective gear with swish new lab coats, safety glasses and gloves, but there are still dangers unaccounted for by any regulations.

Safety labels can induce more curiosity than caution in regular lab-dwellers and prompt such questions as “but what kind of mutations will it cause?” and “how much would I have to spill before it really burns a hole in my skin?” Lists of common dangerous chemicals are always good reminders that common-as-muck solvents can still be hazardous.

Some chemicals no longer carry the inherent threat that they did during undergraduate studies. Liquid nitrogen was once the most awe-inspiring addition to any lab because of the potential to freeze body parts solid. Now, due to my involvement in student science activities, liquid nitrogen only inspires memories of how mixing it with cream and sugar produces the world’s best ice cream.

But it’s the lab equipment, not the chemicals, that are the real hazard. This includes the ghost vibrations that go through your whole arm after a day of re-suspending pellets with the vortex mixer, the deafness I’m sure to get from years of exposure to the perpetual hum of refrigerators and fume-hoods, and then there’s the micropipette. This simple device for transferring less than 1 mL of liquid has caused so many researchers so much pain.

A friend recently returned from the doctor with her hand bandaged after weeks of aching. Arthritis? No. Tendonitis? No. Turns out, years of micropipetting had built up the muscle mass of her thumb so much that it is started to impact her whole hand. On the bright side, she can now start a new career as a model for body building magazines. Anyone can build up arm muscles. It takes a special skill to develop thumb muscles.

This makes lab equipment even more dangerous than keyboards but without the warning labels. And researchers face this every day for the good of science and the love of data, but mostly to feed their hidden adrenaline addictions.


Fulfilling science fiction prophecy

Jetpacks are the most recent science fiction idea to become reality

This is a great week for science fiction. Jet packs, predicted in the 1960s to be the future of transport, have finally made an appearance – without leading to a Darwin award. Meanwhile a version of Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver is the next leap forward in brain cancer treatment.

Good science fiction is the forefront of great science research. It follows a logical series of true scientific developments and extrapolates them further to show what could be possible if research continued fully supported and well-funded.

The stories plant the ideas in the minds of scientists, non-scientists and, in particular, children who then grow up and ask the awkward question: Hang on, why aren’t there jet packs? And then devote years inventing one. It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Touch screens, for example, were a science fiction invention. Everyone who saw Minority Report suddenly wanted to be able to move computer files by touching them. The movie simultaneously showed an idea and produced a market for it and now it exists. That’s great sci-fi. I’m still waiting for one of the airline companies to see the market value in teleportation and throw more money at that.

Science fiction also predicts less positive scenarios, most notably total human annihilation by machines with artificial intelligence. But I think the Terminator movies are misguided. The war with machines will not start with military weapons systems. It will start with smart TVs and it has already begun. My smart TV can now speak to my smart phone and I’m sure they’re plotting against me. While not technically smart, my fridge is of the same brand and will probably supply the muscle for the smart electronics takeover bid.

Now to invent a Dr Who-based time machine to travel back to before the first Terminator movie and tell James Cameron about the smart-TV-world-domination plot. It could be our only hope.

Racing in circles to advance science forward

Research can feel a lot like training for a horse race

The Melbourne cup is run, a horse has won, and we can pack away our frocks and fascinators til next year. The tools downed for the Race That Stops A Nation can again be collected and work continues on just as it always has with scarcely a blip on our event radar.

But behind the 3 minutes of horse racing that most of us will actually watch each year are hours upon hours of hard slog work, getting up at stupid o’clock, and running around in repetitive circles all for the hope of success at the end. Much like science.

Science is not a 9 to 5 job, despite what my contract says. Particularly not biology with the needy-clingy cell cultures that demand attention over weekends and certainly not chemistry with painfully-slow size-exclusion chromatography running 24 hours a day with an inevitable 3 am solvent top-up.

And, of course, there’s the time point analysis where one point always falls on the most inconvenient time no matter how well you try to plan.

On top of that, there is the repetitive work analysing all the nuanced differences associated with testing every possible variable ad nauseam, just prove without doubt that the measured effects are due to exactly what we think they’re due to and not some other random interference.

The repetition and the crazy hours are essential to make science happen. And we do it willingly for the hope that one day we might get to the finish line and find that next cure for cancer, that new method for efficient wine production, that new solar cell that can revolutionize the energy sector, that next step forward.

Having that hope is what makes all those hours of racing in circles all worthwhile. Though I think the odd glass of champagne would be nice too.