Coffeetime Science: The Old Man and the Sea of Science
You can be a big fish and still be nice to the little fish
Coffee in hand, I sit down with my two labmates Katja and Narges and marvel at the blue sky outside. We’re reflecting on the latest story to hit the press, a sexist peer review that has elicited a furious Twitter response.
Recently, I’ve had an experience that I have been meaning to discuss with Katja and Narges. We were at a large scientific conference. One of the organizers just gave the welcoming speech, emphasizing what this conference was about and how it is for the next generation of scientists. We are the future of science, and we are important! How lovely. The keynote lecture that follows is by an excellent speaker and an excellent scientist. What a great start to a conference, I think to myself. The speaker acknowledges all the people in his lab who did the work, praising them throughout, mentioning them by name and showing a photo of each as he goes along.
Someone gets up to ask the first question at the end of the lecture. A male scientist and a big fish in his field. In front of the entire conference at the opening lecture, he says:
“You seem to have a lot of young, attractive women in your lab – what’s your secret?”
Silence in the room. Some awkward chuckles here and there. But mainly: astonished silence. What the…?!? What CENTURY is he from? The speaker, after taking a brief moment to compose himself, replies:
“I have no comments to make on potentially sexist observations about my staff. I employ people based on their brains and their ability to do the work.”
Thank you! I clap feebly. Nobody joins in. There is a general murmur of agreement, however. We want fewer of those kinds of men in science, please. In fact, none, if possible.
But it’s not all bad, Katja recently had an interesting email exchange with a new collaborator at MIT that her boss put her in touch with. He’s 96. That means he remembers the invention of the first electronic computers, the Internet, and most discoveries involving the immune system and its components. This man has witnessed and participated in an era of extraordinary technological, scientific, and cultural change. And he has evolved with, and probably often been ahead of, the times. Katja is delighted.
“He’s been emailing me with suggestions for my project, and he even took the time to meet with me in his office to give me advice and discuss ideas for my project.”
The point is, this professor, who sadly passed away recently, was amazing. Young people in science are important and will shape the future of research, but veteran scientists like this man are equally so, as they show us that it is important to never stop learning, never stop changing, and to always keep an open mind for new things. This man in science was awesome. We want more of those, please!
I sip at my coffee and look at Narges and Katja. We continue to ponder over those that are awesome, and those that are not, remaining hopeful things will get better.
About me: My name is Christine, and I am currently working as a research specialist at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After my undergraduate studies in Oxford, I moved to London for my PhD and first postdoc. After 7 years in this magnificent city, I was ready for an adventure and decided to go to Boston for 2 years for a second postdoc. As love and science made me swap rainy London for alternately deep-frozen or tropical Boston, 2 years turned into 5 (and counting), and I decided to deviate from the traditional academic trajectory to work as a staff scientist (the rather fancy title of my position is research specialist). Most days, I sit with post-docs and other staff scientists over lunch or coffee, and discussion topics range from the inane to career goals and options, our research, new techniques and technology and the like. I would like to share some of those topics with you in this blog. Want to join in? Grab yourself a cup of your favorite caffeinated beverage, read along, and leave comments. You can read my other blog posts here.