Do You Want To Be A Scientist?

As seen from The Med & Ed Connection Vol 9 Issue 9 May 2006
(The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio)
By Thomas Landefeld

So what was that magic potion that the Nutty Professor drank to become a Playa? Can parents really “shrink their kids”? Was there really a Frankenstein monster? According to movies and TV, this is science! It certainly sells tickets but is it really representative of science and those who study it? Very importantly, what impact do these portrayals have on decisions by young people about careers in science? Based on the characterization of the Nutty Professor before his transformation, most would say that it has a very negative impact, i.e. many kids choose not to become scientists. On the other hand, many students are turned on by the TV series CSI as an extremely exciting career, characterized by investigating a crime scene, using evidence such as DNA testing to deduce who the “bad person” is and then very often chasing the person down, with gun in hand. In this case, the image is much more positive but is it “real”, i.e. an accurate portrayal of what a forensic scientist does and, even more importantly, what type of education does one need to become one?

This is just one of the factors that is blamed for the leak in the pipeline of students who choose not to continue their education in the area of science. Recognizing this, scientists are reaching out to young people to talk to them about what science is and who become scientists. The fact is that many scientists are athletes, dancers, musicians, car hobbyists, you name it. And, moreover, these individuals do not look like a Nerd, a Geek, or the Nutty Professor before the potion. However, if the only scientists that young students see are those on TV or at the theatre, then they are seeing an inaccurate image.

Another factor is that kids see science as boring, just like the portrayals of scientists and who wants to lead a boring life? At least as a medical doctor, you cure people, save lives, etc. Well, what most students do not know is that many of the cures, the diagnostic tests and the treatments for disease come from the work and research by scientists. There is nothing more exciting or gratifying than discovering something for the first time and then if it can be used in the treatment and/or diagnosis of disease, it is “icing on the cake!”

Still another factor is the decision making about careers and especially those in science is the “delayed gratification” or probably more appropriately, the lack of “instant gratification”. Unquestionably, if one looks to the end point being the achievement of the advanced degrees and subsequent job, gratification is delayed. However, that certainly does not mean that there is not gratification along the way. As mentioned earlier, discovery is most gratifying and rewarding.  Additionally, when one considers that a person works for about 50 years, delaying their “career” for a few years to accomplish more educationally so that they can have a career and not just a job, that delay is well worthwhile.

So, by providing more realistic (and positive) images of scientists, by providing more information about the rewards that scientists achieve, and by providing gratifying experiences on the way to the delayed gratification that comes with a professional career, we can hopefully increase the number of young people who choose to pursue a career in science. As scientists, we pledge to do that. For you as young people who have an entire life ahead of you, you can not only listen to those who come to talk to you about these issues but also you can “explore and discover” on your own. Check out the Internet with words such as “scientist’,  “scientific investigation”, “biology”, chemistry”, “medicine” , etc. You will be pleasantly surprised and hopefully turned on to the exciting possibilities that are available in your future.


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