On the Importance of Being a Scientist

As a Graduate Student Researcher we can identify as a student, teacher, or even an employee. But do we ever identify as a scientist? And if not, why not?

On a whim, I introduced myself as a “scientist” rather than a grad student in front of a large group of non-scientists. After explaining my unusual school situation several times to non-scientists after moving to LA, saying “scientist” just seemed easier. Despite the word scientist not appearing in my job title, I didn’t think I was wrong. After all, I have 2 degrees in biochemistry, am working on my third, and my days are spent designing and conducting experiments. Additionally, graduate students and post docs carry out a large portion of the NIH and NSF funded cutting-edge research that continues to place America as an innovative leader. I do the things that scientists do, so why couldn’t I call myself a scientist?

So I was surprised when someone, after finding out that I am a 5th year PhD student rather than a fully employed “scientist,” responded with “Oh, I thought you were a real scientist.”

Real scientist, eh?


I’m going to call this image “Super Scientist”…Me. Wearing a lab coat. Because that’s what real scientists do, right?

I wasn’t offended. Graduate student researchers walk a blurry line between student and employee—and that’s not necessarily well-known in other areas. While a masters student in accounting may spend his or her days taking classes and doing projects, a masters student in science usually does research and teaches college courses.


However, the comment did get me thinking about my identity as a student and as a scientist and how that has changed over the years. In graduate school, we identify ourselves by our current year in the program. Our year describes our experience, knowledge, and what challenges we might be facing in coursework, teaching, and exams. Saying I was a “first-year grad student” meant that I was drowning in coursework and teaching while trying to find a lab to call “home”—senior grad students took pity on me with a reassuring “if you can get through first year, you can get through grad school.” Because I was never expected to know how to do anything or work independently during that first year, I didn’t. And I was okay with that. I checked with my advisor or lab manager before every experiment and ran to one of them with every issue I faced rather than attempting to figure it out on my own. As a fifth-year student, I still don’t know everything, but the label comes with more confidence. People ask me where things are and how to perform protocols. They value my opinion for experimental design and interpreting results. I work more independently, trouble-shoot issues on my own, and sometimes even solve problems for others.

Yes, experience plays a large role here. But how much does our self-identification play into our ability to succeed?

In their book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard,” Chip and Dan Heath say to “cultivate a sense of identity and instill the growth mindset” when trying to instill change.1 This can be change within ourselves, others, or a company. They argue that when we label ourselves differently, making the change is much easier. For example, a student that is not doing well in math will never improve if they label themselves as “bad” at math. Instead, by instilling a growth mindset that says “Math is hard. But you are smart. And if you work hard, you will get better at math,” students are much more likely to improve. Similarly, if we tell ourselves that we are “only a first-year” or “only a student,” we may never push ourselves to be an independent researcher during graduate school. The reverse can also be true. If the label “student” is only applicable when in traditional learning environment, we would never learn new things and stop progressing.

How we identify ourselves and others can have a huge impact on our success. The next time you catch yourself saying “I’m only a student” or any other phrase that minimizes your knowledge and contributions, think about the implications. Yes, we still have a lot to learn, but we will always have a lot to learn. Use what knowledge you have now and let it grow—I bet you will be able to go a lot further.

1 Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Crown Business. 2010.


Star Wars, Frodo, and Scientific Presentations

You may not know it, but a scientific presentation can be as thrilling to watch as Star Wars Episode VI! *gasp* Did she just say that?! How can that be? Science is boring! Scientists are boring! They can only speak in monotone voices! There is NO WAY science can be exciting. When you break down the common components of a scientific presentation, it can be easy to see how science can come across as boring.

  1. Introduction: Relevant background is introduced to set the context for the remainder of the presentation.
  2. Question: What scientific question are you asking in your research? What is your hypothesis?
  3. Results: Data that answers your question and supports your hypothesis.
  4. Conclusion: A summary of the results and how they support your hypothesis.

Photo by JD Hancock under Creative Commons

But science IS exciting. A well-told scientific story contains all of the components of a dramatic film following an unlikely hero on an impossible journey (think Frodo and the Ring). Except the scientist is that hero—the protagonist on a quest to solve a problem so challenging that no one has been able to solve it before. What if we rewrite the common components of a scientific presentation with a little more storytelling flair?

  1. Introduce the characters and establish a backstory. This is important information for the audience to understand the context of the presentation Think about how quickly we learn about Luke’s unusual talents and his orphan status in Episode IV. What are the main things your audience needs to know to understand the rest of your presentation? Don’t forget to refer back to these things throughout the story as a reminder!
  2. Present the Quest. What problem are you trying to solve? Why is it important? What have other people done and how did they fail? What are you going to show us that is different?
  3. Begin your journey. You’ve presented your goal, now how are you going get there? Your plan of attack shouldn’t be a secret. Layout what you plan to do so the audience has something to follow—like a map with the trail marked. However, don’t feel like you can only talk about the positive experiments. Whether it is due to limited time or a scientist’s ego, many researchers only address the successful parts of their journey. No story is interesting without the hiccups along the way. A story that followed Frodo simply walking to Mount Doom with no challenges along the way would have been extremely boring. Although not ALL trials need to be addressed, a thoughtful presentation that includes some of the dark alleyways of failed experiments inherent to research adds color and intrigue to the story.
  4. Plot Twist! Along with number 3, the twists and turns of a scientific journey provide excitement. Did your original hypothesis change after a key experiment? Did a lab mistake result in a successful result therefore changing the trajectory of your research? Did you have an “Aha!” moment?
  5. The Happy Ending. No story is complete without a happy ending. Science is an ongoing multi-part series. Each episode has a feeling of resolution that leaves the audience feeling comfortable, but still a little excited for what comes next.

Science is Fun and Exciting! As scientists we can sometimes fall into the trap of boring presentation structures simply because that is how people have always done it. But we don’t have to! Your research is exciting. Just make sure other people know that as well.

Illuminating biology with biological glowers

Utilizing Biological Phenoma to study Biology: Bioluminescence

Quick: Is the glowing water in this picture photoshopped or real?

bioluminescent waves

Phil Hart [Copyright Phil Hart under a Creative Commons attribution-noncommercial-share alike 2.5 license]

The correct answer is real! Yes, there is such a thing as naturally occurring glowing water. And it is made possible by a phenomenon called bioluminescence.

Bioluminescence is a chemical reaction that happens in a living organism to produce a beautiful glow. Last month a few of my friends were swimming at La Jolla Shores and noticed that the water around them lit up with every movement of their bodies. What made the water glow? Phytoplankton emitting light when agitated—every movement from waves, currents, fish, or, in this case, swimmers, sent colorful flashes throughout the water. Wanting to witness it for myself, we went out again to experience the “glowing waves”. Unfortunately, we were too late in the season to experience the full beauty of bioluminescent plankton lighting up the waves, but by rapidly swishing our hands underwater, we were still rewarded with small sparks of light. Although my encounter with bioluminescence fell short that evening, I do get to see it in action every day in the lab.

Today I introduce how scientists utilize bioluminescent properties to study biological phenomena at the molecular, cellular, and organism level. Throughout history humans have benefited from the natural glow produced by bioluminescent organisms such as the use of dried fish skins as a source of light in coal mines instead of lamps. Usage of these organisms has led researchers to ask the question: what makes these organisms glow? Seeking to understand bioluminescence at a molecular level has led researchers to produce fluorescent “tags”. These “tags” can be attached to an unlimited number of molecules and proteins to answer fundamental biological questions.

Bioluminescence is a chemical reaction that takes place in a living organism to produce light. Although the most well-known organism to produce this glow might be the firefly, the majority of bioluminescent creatures are found in the ocean. Different organisms may vary in how they produce their unique glow, but the basic mechanism involves the enzyme* luciferase reacting with the light-emitting compound luciferin to produce light.

The beauty of naturally-glowing living organisms led researchers to investigate the underlying chemistry of this unique phenomenon. One researcher, Osamu Shimomura, began a lifelong relationship with bioluminescence when he found the structureǂ of luciferin in 1955. What followed was a quest to discover how different organisms produced their own unique glow. While investigating the bioluminescent jellyfish Aequorea victoria, Shimomura discovered green fluorescent protein (GFP). This discovery, and the consequent development of GFP, revolutionized biology. Scientists could now attach fluorescent proteins, such as GFP, to a molecule of their choice and literally watch biology in action by watching the fluorescently tagged molecules. In 2008, Shimomura, along with Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery and development of GFP.

Since the discovery of GFP, fluorescent proteins have been developed in a wide variety of colors for an extensive number of molecules and proteins. Although both fluorescent proteins and bioluminescence produce light, they work very differently. Rather than using a chemical reaction, fluorescent proteins produce certain light colors by using energy from other specific wavelengths of light. Fluorescent proteins create their unique glow when they are “excited” by a wavelength of light specific to the protein.¥ For example, GFP

GFPexcitationandemissionemits green light at ~510 nm after shining blue light at ~490 nm on the protein. By manipulating the protein, these light patterns can be optimized to produce different colors!


Source: Tsien Lab

Researchers can use these proteins to image biological events in real-time and real-space. This process is called fluorescent microscopy. Fluorescent microscopes work by first hitting a sample with an excitation light. A camera attached to the microscope then catches the light emitted from the sample. When specific molecules (proteins, compounds, parts of cells, etc) are tagged with different fluorescent proteins, researchers can watch, analyze, and quantify what is happening—whether this is of molecules by themselves, inside of a cell, or even inside of an organism. Advancing technology in fluorescent proteins, microscopes, and other emerging biological approaches are pushing the limits of how small we can go (can we look at very specific interactions inside of a cell?) and how many things we can watch at the same time (can I see 6 things inside of a cell at the same time rather than only 3?). These advances are enabling us to find answers to critical questions such as:

  • Why do some cells act differently than others, even when treated the same? This question has applications in cancer research, healing responses, and why certain drugs work for some people and not others.
  • Can we predict the movement patterns of cells in response to a specific stimulation? Take a look at my previous post on wound response to see an example of the importance of understanding cellular movement.
  • What are the differences between the actions of a single cell and the actions of a population of cells? Single cells do not always act the same, and yet, a population of cells has a very predictable response. Why?

Although still young, the use of fluorescent proteins in biology is an exciting and continually improving field. By applying fluorescent microscopy to quantitative biology methods, we can better understand biological events to answer some of the most complex biological questions, such as those listed above. Most importantly, the resulting images provide a snapshot into the hidden world of biology by providing a new level of detail into how we function as living organisms.

*An enzyme is a protein that accelerates chemical reactions. Here, it accelerates the chemical reaction that makes luciferin light up.

ǂ In order to understand how things work, scientists often need to first find the structure of their molecule or protein of interest. Structures can be found using a variety of methods.

€ A wavelength of light is a unit of measurement in a light spectrum. That is, each color of light that we see has a specific wavelength—this is the visible light region (390 nm –780 nm).

Light Spectra

¥ Each fluorescent protein has a specific excitation spectrum and emission spectrum. A spectrum is a pattern consisting of peaks and valleys at different wavelengths across the visible light spectrum. This spectrum is unique for every fluorescent protein. For example, the spectrum of GFP has an excitation peak at ~490 nm and an emission peak at ~510 nm. ­ The emission spectrum consists of a peak that emits the color for that wavelength – the green that you see in GFP. This happens only after a specific wavelength of light, or the peak found in the excitation spectrum, excites the fluorescent protein.

GFP spectrum


Divorcing Science

We have all heard that poor communication is one of the top reasons for divorce. And although the specific results of studies making these claims may differ, I am sure that we have all experienced frustration from miscommunication in professional or personal relationships. Currently, there is a serious communication breakdown between science and the public. Although there are various reasons why scientists and the public are growing more frustrated with each other, these frustrations are slowly, but surely, driving a wedge between the public and science.

In my experience, here are a few reasons why the relationship between science and the public is breaking down:

“If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we cure cancer??”

This question summarizes people’s frustration with science: the public doesn’t understand why scientists haven’t solved certain problems. As scientists we set false expectations by making generalized claims of progress to win research funding and media attention. Even worse, we oversimplify problems by assuming that a general audience is unable to understand our work. Although scientific jargon does make research authentic and definite, part of communicating effectively is maintaining an accurate message using terminology accessible to your audience.

So what can we do?

We can be a little more vulnerable. Show the struggle. Even let our failures show sometimes. Yes, fallibility doesn’t help win funding. And yes, it’s scary to let people see your bad side. But it’s real. Most experiments fail. Scientific progress is slow. Researchers spend years focusing their attention on one tiny problem that is part of a massive group of research. But that’s science. Just like celebrity anti-photoshop campaigns attempt to reset realistic expectations of body image, placing scientific discoveries in proper context by accurately depicting day-to-day life of research can reset realistic scientific expectations.

The public is scared of science. Or worse, doesn’t “believe” science.

In an age where information is easily accessible, people are looking for answers. A mother using an autistic child’s handicap as emotional appeal was able to turn thousands of people away from extensive rigorous trial-based studies that show that vaccines do not cause autism. When choosing between simplified messages filled with promise and complicated trial-based research studies, I would probably choose the simplified message as well. From a young age we learn that science, math, and numbers are HARD. And when things are hard, we think we can’t do them. We get scared and would rather listen to a simplified voice that makes sense to us. STEM fields miss out on brilliant and creative minds by losing them in elementary school years because of our own inadequacies of teaching and engaging students (I have so much to say on the inadequacy of STEM education…but that is for another time). And now as adults we are losing them again.

So what can we do?

No one likes to be talked down to. Often as scientists we think that we don’t need to explain ourselves. We went through the training. We understand the process. We spent years of our lives thinking about and solving these problems, why can’t the public just believe us?! As scientists we are pretty good at communicating to those in our field in order to publish papers and present our research at conferences. We are even fairly adequate at communicating to scientists in other fields. However, we are really bad at communicating to those without scientific training. For many scientists, the public (government) funds our research. Just as businesses must report back to investors and stake holders effectively in order show progress, why shouldn’t scientists work harder to effectively communicate research progress to the public?  We submit progress reports to funding agencies, but these are written in complicated scientific jargon and are only read by program directors. Why shouldn’t we work harder to make sure that the public understands what we actually do and where we actually are?

“I think the way to live your life is you find the study that sounds the best to you and you go with that.”-Al Roker, The TODAY Show

John Oliver recently did a piece discussing how misunderstandings between science and the public stem from generalized claims made by the media. I think he does a great job of highlighting the hazards of oversimplifying messages for the sake of a catchy headline. The danger here is that the public hears generalized messages without seeing the broader context of the research. This quote by Al Roker depicts just how confusing science can be. It’s true, there are a lot of studies that seem contradictory to each other. There are very few definitives in science. We look at trends and averages more than single studies. However, media reporting often neglects to capture the full background of single studies leading to misinterpreted results and a less-informed public.

So what can we do?

John Oliver also begins to dissect the dangerous line many scientists walk of maintaining scientific integrity while trying to gain funding and acknowledgement in a competitive market. I have often heard humorous stories about press releases for published research that depict the research in a manner never mentioned by the researcher during the interview. Although the market for scientifically trained reporters is expanding, it still isn’t common or required to have a scientific background to report scientific news. Knowing that most journalists lack scientific training, researchers can take a bigger role in ensuring that at least the initial press release contains accurate information. While I understand that catchy titles and overpromising results attract bigger audiences, I think the public is smart enough to assess uncertainty in scientific statements if the scientist takes the time to educate and present the evidence.

And so…

And so I want to work on our relationship: the relationship between science and the public. And although there are thousands of blogs and science commentators across the internet, apparently there aren’t enough that trust the public with the right mix of evidence, non-condescension, and excitement. And while I know there is a lot for me to learn about science, I do know that communicating about science is important. I hope that this can be a place to talk about some cool discoveries in the biochemistry and quantitative biology. I also hope it can be a place to talk about effective scientific communication. I may even throw out a few opinions about my personal relationship with science from time to time. But mostly I hope that I can make some small positive impact in beginning to heal the relationship between science and the public.

“One person can make a difference. And everyone should try” -John F. Kennedy