What is a scientist?

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Sometimes, when anticipating the arrival of an important email, I find myself constantly checking my inbox. Occasionally, if a few hours go by without receiving a new message, I start questioning whether my email is working! While questioning my inbox a few months ago, I was pleasantly surprised when I received an email invitation from the Yale Pathways to Science Program.

Pathways to Science is a local outreach program that aims to connect scientists with middle and high school students so that students learn what it means to be a scientist. The program’s email invited me to join them in a fun Sunday afternoon discussion.

I accepted the invitation because I enjoy sharing my experiences in science and my volunteer responsibilities seemed manageable. According to the invitation, I needed to eat snacks, be charming, introduce myself, and lead students in a discussion. I could do all of this – especially eating snacks!

However, the invitation also requested that we help the students answer the question, “What is a scientist?” While it seemed like a rather straightforward question, I felt challenged. I had to figure out two questions for myself. When did I become a scientist and what makes me a scientist?

Did I become a scientist when I started asking questions about the world around me? (Like when I would ask my mom, “Why do worms crawl up on the driveway after a rainfall?) Did I become a scientist when I performed experiments in elementary school? middle school? high school? college? Did I become a scientist when I started working as a research technician? Or when I got my PhD in Cancer Biology?

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Am I a scientist because I wear a lab coat? Because I use the scientific process? Because I study virology and cancer? Would I consider myself a scientist if I answered questions about art, history, and politics?

After a lengthy internal monologue, I ultimately reasoned that I am a scientist because I use fruit flies to study how damaged DNA is repaired. I also decided that even though I have never had the official job title of Scientist, I became a scientist when I worked as a research technician to study angiogenesis (the growth of blood vessels) and apoptosis (the death of cells). As a technician, I spent my days performing experiments, collecting data, and interpreting the results. This is what I considered to be the work of a scientist.

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But as I learned from the Pathways to Science students, I should have called myself a scientist much earlier! While my definition was narrow, the students created a broader, more elegant definition. They suggested that a scientist is someone who studies how the world works. I agree with them.

Being a scientist doesn’t require a PhD, it just requires that we are curious. We can all be scientists.

Being a scientist doesn’t require that we use a microscope, it just requires that we explore questions about the world around us. We can answer whatever question we can think of – be it about viruses, rocks, art, books, history, language, learning, behavior, animals, oceans, planets, cooking, or anythiing else!

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As scientists, we can discover what makes the best diet for a Venus flytrap, how to build a robot that cleans the house, how to cook our favorite meal, or what makes a book exciting to read. Depending on how we want to explore each of these questions, we can take different approaches.

For example, if we wanted to learn the healthiest diet for a Venus flytrap, we could read about other people’s experiences. Alternatively, we could imagine a healthy diet and then test our guess with first-hand experiments. So, if we predicted that these carnivorous plants eat fruit flies, spiders, and worms, how could we could we compare these diets?

In one experiment, we could feed the flytrap with fruit flies for three weeks, and then feed it spiders for three weeks, and finally feed it worms for three weeks. At the end of the nine weeks, we could conclude that the healthiest diet was the diet that made the flytrap look the healthiest.

But, if we fed just one flytrap with the three different diets, how convinced would we be of our results? Would the flytrap be benefiting from the fruit fly diet even when we switched the diet to spiders or worms? Would three weeks be a long enough time to see the effect of the different diets? How would we know that the flytrap was healthy? How many plants would you want to test the diet on? Would one be enough, or would we want to try ten or one hundred?

Depending on the way that we perform the experiments, we may feel more or less convinced of what makes the healthiest diet for a Venus flytrap. Regardless of the way we do the experiment, however, we are all scientists when we explore how things work. What are you curious about?

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