Attitudes in science: Influencing change

- 3 mins

This semester, I am mentoring an undergrad, Alex, in the capacity of a graduate mentor as part of the GUMP program here at Virginia Tech. I met her twice this week; I went with her on a lab visit to Dr. Chris Lawrence’s lab, and we went to a talk by Dr. Steven Melville. Some of the thoughts I had while observing her interactions with Dr. Lawrence and discussion I had with her after the talk by Dr. Melville seem broadly applicable to academia in general. This piece serves to explore those ideas.

During the lab visit, Dr. Lawrence described his current research projects in the depth and breadth appropriate for a freshman. That in itself was highly useful for me to observe, because I seem to have lost touch on how science is explained to undergrads! I was curious about how much Alex would take back from the discussion, which spanned immunology, molecular biology, and of course fungal biology, which she is most familiar with. At some point, Dr. Lawrence mentioned his mentor Gary Strobel, a well respected field mycologist. This clearly piqued Alex’s interest, as she had heard of Dr. Strobel from her class. Her interest was sustained beyond that point, and in a discussion later on, she told me how excited she was that there was a connection between her class and the research Dr. Lawrence was carrying out.

I realized that the connection was what made the interaction more concrete for Alex. After some reflection around this incident I have reached an intermediate conclusion about the problem of science communication. It is this notion of having a connection to the science you are being introduced to. Is this connection purely in terms of the names of scientists you recognize? It is true that as you progress in your career, you recognize more and more scientists. But if the main driver in terms of a student’s interest in a given area of research is her proximity in terms of names she can recognize associated with that field, the problem is mutated to a whole different level. Consider the consequence of the previous statement for science education in general; I am now more inclined to believe and value a person’s work if I can recognize and relate it to that of a scientist I respect. On the other hand, I already have a negative impression about certain fields of research, and so I am inherently biased against some types of ‘science’.

This point mentioned above definitely struck me right now as I was writing this piece. Thinking back to what happened this week, we had a panel discussion on open access (which left me slightly disappointed) and my learnings from it tie back to the discussion above. The panel did a good job in introducing the /necessity/ of open access in academia, with a lot of good discussion on the impacts it might have on niche areas, like the humanities that rely on qualitative research where the same dataset can be a source for multiple influential publications by one group, while the risk of being scooped is high if it is made open access. However, there was very little discussion on how to make open access ‘fashionable’, how to rope in more people, what concrete strategies would have to be adopted/implemented in order to influence the society of scientists to change their outlook. And I believe this will only happen if eminent scientists lead by example. There has to be some tangible benefit for young academics to adopt this workflow, this philosophy. How do journals attract high quality research in the open access model, and not degenreate into the ‘just another open access’ journal? How do they attract /higher/ quality submissions than do Nature or science? I believe that change is hard to implement unless there are role models to follow. An example would be eLife. eLife is associated with Randy Schekman. Does it take a Nobel Prize to effect change?

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