Science People

Doing science

The word ‘Science’ conjured up for me, when I was a kid, images of women in lab coats who smiled into glass tubes with blue and yellow liquids in them. Alternatively, of men who wore lab coats, held writing pads and whispered among themselves as they looked at mechanical objects gleaming in the light of a huge lab. It was a very stereotyped image of science and its practitioners. Unfortunately, some of that stereotype has not really changed: for instance, the low representation of women in many fields of  research (including engineering, physics and mathematics). However, my own experiences of doing science over the past 7 years or so has allowed me to think about this thing we call science. More specifically, about the issues we face when we do science. Most of what I speak about comes from the perspective of an ecologist who spends time doing some field work, but some of the issues might resonate with many scientists.  

‘Doing science’ is the what I call the day-to-day activities that constitute most of our everyday as researchers. Thinking about our research, designing it, implementing it, interpreting the results and writing/communicating them – all of these are at the core of our daily lives. Questioning our own methods and thoughts and a healthy dose of skepticism are also important part of the doing of science. The doing of the science is a very enriching experience (at least for me). I enjoy the process of wondering (and wandering), asking questions, finding answers and ultimately understanding some aspects of the natural world around me. Many of my friends also agree – the ‘thrill of discovery’, as one friend puts it, really excites and motivates them. At the end of the day, when we have learnt something new and have ‘figured something out’, the joy it brings is immeasurable!

At the same time, the doing of science is not without issues. Young researchers (and old) are constantly learning to be good at managing teams, to be good at communicating to both scientists and other public about their work, to be good at writing, to raise grants among other things. The list of skills we need to develop as researchers seem endless. These skills are important, no doubt, but often are overlooked when it comes to the training we receive. Much of our course work focuses on teaching techniques and theory. Thankfully, scientific writing is slowly being included as part of the basic training. In spite of this, there is still a lot that researchers have to learn on their own. This, then, could lead to researchers feeling inadequate in terms of their ability to continue their research in the future. (As a post-PhD researcher, I feel even less confident that I can take up a career in science than when I started!) The feeling of being buried under tonnes of work, keeping up with literature that is produced constantly, managing field teams, family expectations etc., adds to the stress of many researchers/students. While this may not be the case for everyone, but many researchers I have spoken to concur with my assessment. These issues can chip away the joy of doing science, causing stress, forcing them to question their careers in science. It is important, I believe, to talk about the issues we face that lead to stress in our research life. For most of us just the knowledge that others also face issues is enough to shake off the feeling of being underwhelmed. Talking to our peers really helps achieve this. Different people, as we will explore in the coming posts, deal with this in many different ways. As for myself, once I found ways to deal with these issues, I was able to slowly start to concentrate on the thing that I like doing most – research. 

Starting with Chadrima’s brief post (we will revisit her journey later), we here at Pangolin Prophecies are making an attempt to engage with scientists, especially young women researchers, and peek into their personal journeys as they navigate this thing we call science. What was the most challenging bits of their research? Did they face unexpected problems? To me, these are important issues that we need to include in our conversations as scientists. We hope you will enjoy their honest and open conversations and join us in commending them for their perseverance and their hard work.

Chandrima Home, a PhD candidate at ATREE, talks about being a single parent in academia in the first post

Jayabharathi, a PhD candidate at CES, shares her experience as an ecologist in this second post

Navya, an independent researcher, shares her experience in the third post