Breaking the Glass Beaker: Part 1

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On August 19, 2014, Posted by , In The Midnight Watch, By , With Comments Off on Breaking the Glass Beaker: Part 1

One social science major’s foray into the national laboratories.

As an undergraduate student studying Political Science and Public Policy at the University of California Berkeley, I recognized the lack of opportunities for cross-disciplinary academic collaboration for undergraduates, as well as the absence of scientific background information in all of my social science and humanities courses. As social scientists, we were not taught the scientific foundations that served to inform the public policy or political theories that we wrote and researched. As a result, it never occurred to me to take a walk on the other side and explore the science behind my research.  In Fall 2012, all of that changed when I became a research assistant for the Nuclear Policy Working Group at UC Berkeley.

This is the first part of a three-part series detailing my experiences breaking into the scientific community as an outsider. As you will see from my writings, I have broken more than a few glass beakers as I tried to learn about the culture of science as I moved from undergraduate to research assistant to Deputy Director of the Nuclear Policy Working Group.

The highly secured facilities of Sandia National Laboratories and Lawrence Livermore Laboratory don’t look like much from the outside. Built in the fields of Livermore, the buildings are surrounded by tall fences and look relatively unobtrusive, save for the occasional signs warning against trespassing on federal land.

Our Director, Dr. Bethany Goldblum, and I visited the labs in February to connect our students in the Nuclear Policy Working Group with staff scientists and researchers at the national laboratories. It was my first time visiting the labs, although Dr. Goldblum actively collaborates with researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Sandia California National Laboratories on applied nuclear physics research.

If you think TSA is strict, then you haven’t tried to get into a classified national laboratory. At least I didn’t have to take my shoes off. Soldiers armed with rifles guard every entrance and a multiplicity of cameras follows your every move. Outsiders are forbidden from connecting to the Internet, and also cannot take any photos or videos. Basically, if you really want to share your visit, wait until you’re off of the lab premises to take a selfie and post it on Instagram.

During our presentation, I quickly discovered that practices that are considered unprofessional or taboo in the policy community are not so taboo in the scientific research and academic community. For example, I mentioned that in our Conference Participation professional development workshop, we wanted to emphasize the importance of dressing appropriately for your presentation. Specifically, I mentioned that students should not wear jeans (which is trademark attire for some scientists at conferences). At the end of our talk, a senior scientist stood up and remarked that he wears jeans to every conference and that he thought it was completely fine, before walking out.

It turns out that in the scientific community, if you give an engaging, on-point, scientifically accurate and persuasive presentation on your research, then it really doesn’t matter if you show up in your underwear to give your presentation. Just look at Einstein!

Photo credit: Wikipedia.org

Photo credit: Wikipedia.org

In the scientific community, the merit of your work and the quality of your research is what matters most to your peers and colleagues, not the way you look or dress. Society should really take a page from science in that regard.

Almost immediately after my remarks about the jeans, I unknowingly made yet another gaffe. When describing the Professional Communication workshop, I mentioned that, for example, it would not be appropriate for a student to email someone in a higher position, such as a staff scientist, program manager, policymaker, Ambassador, etc., after official work hours. While this is seen more as a common courtesy in most professional communities, it was seen as an affront to the scientific and academic communities, which are truly 24-hour careers. The continued growth and spread of global communication technologies enables researchers from across the globe to communicate with one another across many different time zones to keep up with the demand of international scientific collaboration. This means that if a Berkeley researcher sends an email at 5pm Pacific Standard Time, a Norwegian researcher, 9 hours ahead, will be receiving it at 2am on the next day. Interestingly enough, it would not be unusual for that Berkeley researcher to receive a response fairly quickly! Such is the nature of dedicated scientists, or perhaps the poor soul on the night shift at the cyclotron. The point is that professional communication is a very situational topic, which means that the future interns and research assistants that we are training will need to use their best judgment when determining whether it is appropriate to send a work email at 3am.

I learned the hard way that week that there is no handbook or Google search that could teach me or any other social science major or policymaker everything that they need to know about the organizational culture of science. Upon returning from the national laboratories, we immediately revisited a number of the professional development workshops to ensure that they accurately reflected and acknowledged the intrinsic differences of the scientific and policy communities. I’m sure this will not be the last time that I learn about differences in the scientific community.

There are many nuances of the scientific and policy communities that cannot be learned or picked up easily; they must be experienced. Policymakers, current and budding, should actively pursue efforts to tour and visit national laboratories, academic laboratories, and non-governmental organizations conducting scientific research to familiarize themselves with where and how scientific data is produced. Exposure to the scientific process and the “human” factor behind data production will help policymakers better understand the scientific foundation upon which their policy recommendations are based. Similarly, scientists interacting with the policy community will also benefit from exposure to think tanks, congressional offices, and government agencies in order to fully understand where and how their scientific results are collected, analyzed, and incorporated into domestic and international policy.

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