The Myth of Science – – written by Leandra Darden

Researcher with marsh rice rat

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.

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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.

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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!

Marsh Madness

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) has written an article that focuses on our Marsh Madness event. Every year the CWC scientists, researchers and techs get together for a all hands-on-deck sampling event. It is a great way for our scientists to stay connected and get the data needed to answer our questions. Click the link below to read the full story.

http://gulfresearchinitiative.org/marsh-madness-is-seldom-in-march/

Unsung Heroes of Science

As you get older and learn more about science you realize that science is an intense and complicated series of failures and triumphs. Field biologists run into roadblocks in both the lab and the field. In CWC oil spill research we have principal investigators (PIs), who lead projects and manage teams of researchers. But just like Gru cannot steal the moon without help, neither can any of our PIs run their labs or complete their research without help. This help comes in many forms such as peers, undergrad and graduate students, as well as, research assistants. The part of being a scientist that isn’t shown on National Geographic is that you often have to travel to meetings, fill out endless forms, manage budgets, and continue to write grants. While the PIs are traveling or busy with other aspects of the job, their labs must continue to function. Thanks to some amazing people this is done without missing a step. Amanda Fontenot and Hillary Sullivan are research assistants in labs and it is their job to make sure that data, and experiments continue without direct oversight of the PI.

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Amanda Fontenot is a research assistant in Dr. Nancy Rabalais’ lab. Her job duties means she can either be out on the R/V Pelican in the Gulf of Mexico, the marsh, or in the lab. When she was growing up she knew that she always liked science so when she was searching for a job she decided to try the scientific field. She took a chance and emailed Dr. Rabalais to see if there were any openings in her lab. Seven years later she has worked her way up through the lab.

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One of her responsibilities is to management data coming from 2 weather stations located at LUMCON and Terrebonne Bay. The weather stations take data every 15 minutes and it is Amanda’s job to check that data to make sure they are accurate. If something is off or not within normal limits she has to go out to the station and fix the problem. Not only does Amanda manage these data but she also helps to collect data out in the marsh. Amanda never knew just how dirty and covered in mud you could get. The mud is actually one of the things that she loves most about her job. Her advice to future assistance is namely to have an enthusiastic “go do it” attitude. No matter what they ask you to do, from prepping for field work; to diving into the marsh to rescue a piece of equipment, you have to be prepared and willing to do the task. One of the talents you need as a research assistant is knowing how to think on your feet. Often during field work things happen like having a piece of equipment begin to fail and it is up to you to try to fix the problem as best you can in the field.

Hillary Sullivan is a research assistant in Dr. Brian Robert’s lab. Her job responsibilities includes more lab work than Amanda. One of her main duties is to process water and soil samples that were collected in the field. She was drawn to this job because it was an opportunity for a research based job that also allowed her to have a better understanding of the salt marshes. Hillary has been learning how to run different machines that take samples and provide data about nitrogen, carbon and other chemical processes

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. One of Hillary’s favorite parts is the fact that she gets to go out to collect samples about twice a month. In the field the team collects soil samples, water samples, and do clip plots for above ground and below ground biomass. Some of their experiments are time sensitive. As soon as they come back from an exhausting day in the field, the team has to start running experiments run in the lab with the samples they collected that day. All of these things mean that there are occasionally some 14 to 15 hour days. Like Amanda, Hillary never thought that she could get as dirty as she does in the salt marsh. And just like Amanda, it is one of the things that she loves about this job. While samples are running, or the occasional down time, Hillary is also responsible for cleaning and maintaining the lab. This means cleaning glassware, keeping the equipment maintained and calibrated, and keeping the lab benches ready for the next use. Cleaning glassware is definitely something that has to happen early and often because the lab uses so many for experiments and fieldwork. Hillary believes that to be a great research assistant you have to have a willingness to learn and try new things.

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Amanda, Hillary and many more research assistants are important parts of what makes our CWC labs successful. They provide extra hands in the field, and can hold down the fort when the PIs have other obligations. It is because of their hard work and support that we have the opportunity to learn so much more about science.

So a sincere thank you to all the unsung heroes of science.

a blog dedicated to the Coastal Waters Consortium