If you ask students what a scientist does, they will tell you, it is someone who does experiments. If you then ask them how many experiments they are running at a time, they will generally tell you one. Most of the time students are picturing someone in a lab with a lab coat mixing chemicals, and shouting “EUREKA” when they come up with the answer to their question. Cartoons have conditioned kids to believe that science is done inside with chemicals, and beakers, and an assistant named Igor. We are here to debunk some of the myths.
Myth 1: Science is done inside.
That is not true at all. Did Charles Darwin study animals inside? Did Galileo study the stars inside? The answer is no. To understand the natural world, you have to conduct science outside in the heat, cold, with bugs, wind, and sometimes rain. Nature is a beautiful interconnected world, and you have to preform experiments in situ. This means in the actual environment to begin to comprehend the intricacies of patterns. That is why scientists will set up experiments outside. Scientists will build study sites, generally near each other so they experience similar situations during the study time, which will include at least one treatment and a control. Then they have to check progress to collect data. This can mean daily, weekly, monthly or yearly trips out to the study site. While this often the best way to understand exactly what is going on, it can be time consuming, costly, and sometimes hard to understand what factor might be influencing the focus of the experiment. To try and alleviate some of the parameters scientists will build mesocasms, small versions of the environment that they can manipulate to get better results. This allows the scientist to fine tune any differences between treatments and begin to understand how they are affecting the results.
Myth 2: Scientists run one experiment at a time.
When you talk to various scientists they will tell you that one of the reasons that they chose the profession is because they had a lot of questions. After you run an experiment, you will begin to see more questions actually arise from your experiments than those you answer. Scientists will have many different projects running that may overlap but are seeking to find different answers.
Myth 3: Scientists work alone or with one assistant.
While in college many people would tell me that they wanted to be a scientist because they would not have to deal with people. The reality is that scientists are NOT loners, they are in fact, team oriented. In order to answer the many questions, process the massive amounts of data and samples, and just plain keep things in order a scientist will be a part of a lab. This lab generally includes research assistants, a lab manager, undergraduate students, graduate students, and post-docs all working together and on separate projects. Are there days where you are so caught up in your job that you may not see anyone, yes, but for the most part you are going to be part of a well-oiled machine that helps to identify and answer life’s questions.
Myth 4: All scientists wear a lab coat.
This is true and not true. Most scientists do not wear a lab coat all the time and some do not wear one at all. Even in more biologically focused labs, chemicals may be necessary to process samples. A lab coat is not for show, it is to protect yourself and your clothing from anything harmful. A lot of the equipment being used needs to be kept at low temperatures so the lab coat has the added bonus of keeping you warm!
Myth 5: Scientists yell “Eureka” when they make a discovery.
It is fun to think that all scientists have that lightbulb moment and they remember to yell that iconic phrase…but the reality is not so. During a discovery you are more likely to hear a “FINALLY” or a “Hmmm, this is weird” or “I don’t understand what is happening” than anything else.
Hopefully we have successfully refuted some of the myths behind science!