Science from the sidelines: Lessons from jellyfish

What does it mean to be a scientist?

When children are young, we teach them about the types of people they will encounter in the big world and their own options for their future adult roles. We tell them that scientists are people who ask questions about how the world works and try to find answers to those questions. We show them examples of people in lab coats, or in outdoor gear in a forest, or on a space station. We create fictional characters in movies and on TV. Some examples will be inspiring, some funny, and some downright wrong (cue the Mad Scientist). Meanwhile, educators at all levels teach the basics of scientific methodology and cover the background information to help students appreciate this approach in their own lives.

And then, a few students will choose a career in science. They will take many specialized classes in college. They may go on to pursue an advanced degree. And they may ultimately land a job where they are, indeed, earning money while asking questions about how the world works and trying to find answers to those questions. Or maybe they won’t. There are many reasons a scientifically trained person may not be formally employed as a scientist at a particular moment: lack of available jobs in their geographic area, caring for family members, burnout, choosing a different kind of job, personal illness or disability, becoming interested in new opportunities, etc. But is a person still a scientist if they’re not actively…you know…doing science?

Maybe this seems like a silly question, but I don’t think it is. I just finished reading a new book, Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone, by Juli Berwald. I discovered the title in one of those year-end book recommendation lists. I don’t know much about jellies and thought the idea of an invertebrate-themed memoir seemed intriguing, so I reserved a copy from my local public library (thanks, libraries!).

The book is a really nice introduction to jellyfish, in all their mysterious splendor. It’s also about ocean health, broadly defined. We’re taken on a journey around the world to meet scientists studying many different aspects of jellyfish biology: jellyfish anatomy and lifestyles, jellyfish in the food chain, concerns about jellyfish stings and blooms, jellyfish habitats, and others. Here, Berwald acts at times as a journalist, using her scientific training and curiosity to interview scientists and report on their conversations and discoveries. Berwald also introduces broader themes related to ocean health, such as sustainable fishing, pollution, climate change, invasive species, and so forth through the lens of jellyfish biology and her own research training. Through it all, Berwald reminds us that the ocean is large, we depend on it, and we don’t understand it very well. I learned a lot about jellies by reading the book and feel better informed about what they can teach us.

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Moon jellies. By Narrissa Spies (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But the book is more than a love story about jellies and a call to action about oceans. Juli Berwald herself is also a character in the book. Dr. Berwald earned a Ph.D. in ocean science in California, but then relocated with her spouse to Austin, Texas. There, she did not start a job as a scientist. Instead, she stayed busy as the mother of two children and used her scientific training to write material for textbooks. She also has written articles about science for various news and magazine publishers, and now a book. So her current career is “science writer” rather than “scientist.” But as a trained scientist, she still has a passion for asking questions and seeking the answers, which is what led her to make contact with jellyfish researchers and learn more about them herself. Her chronicle is grounded in the scientific process, but she is the storyteller, rather than the investigator. So, is she still a scientist? In the narrative of the book, she reveals she wasn’t always sure. And some of the researchers she interviewed thought of her as journalist first and Ph.D.-trained scientist second. Berwald’s attempts to make a difference in science from the sidelines, rather than through experiments, likely mirrors the experience of many individuals who were trained in science but aren’t currently working as active investigators.

In some ways, Berwald’s experience is similar to my own. I earned a Ph.D. in genetics, and I have other professional experiences in my past. But then circumstance led me to a particular geographic location and a job in undergraduate education–without scientific research–that has turned into a career. Professionally, I consider myself a scientist who works as an educator. Likewise, I would consider Berwald a scientist who works as a journalist and science writer. But I suspect others might not view our circumstances in quite the same way, since neither of us is currently doing scientific research. Is it the training and mindset, or how they earn their paycheck, that makes someone a scientist?

Here’s an analogy as food for thought: I have played musical instruments or sung in groups most of my life. I haven’t been formally trained and certified with a degree as a “musician,” but when I’m playing, I am (clearly) an amateur musician. I’m not playing any instrument this year. Does this make me less of a “musician” overall? I still consider myself a musician, even though I’m not making music of my own at this moment in my life. I may get a chance to do so again later, and I’m experienced enough to pick back up where I left off and continue improving my skill and sharing my music with the world. Likewise, I would argue that the advanced training I’ve received in science makes me even more of a scientist than I am a musician, even though I’m not engaged in active scientific investigation at the moment. Maybe I will be again someday, or maybe not. In the meantime, I train students and enjoy reading and writing about science. But I’m still a scientist.

After launching my blog a year ago, I joined Twitter and have been following various conversations there about the importance of sharing what we learn from scientific investigation with the world. Different aspects are routinely discussed, such as:

  • encouraging and preparing more scientists to communicate their own research to broader audiences
  • science information in the media (traditional print journalism, websites, videos, TV, etc.)
  • science in public policy
  • building a pipeline of science literacy through formal and informal STEM education initiatives
  • the value of blogging, long-format articles, podcasts, storytelling, and other types of science communication

Twitter is organized in part by hashtags (#), which provide online links to others talking about the same topic. Adding #scicomm to a post links you with others talking about science communication. I’ve noticed that many (most?) #scicomm conversations are focused on professional scientists communicating their own work. But I think Dr. Berwald’s book and the experiences of many other scientists can be a reminder that scientists are playing many professional roles in #scicomm outside the research lab environment. Indeed, many trained scientists are coming through the pipeline of education and dispersing into a wide range of professional careers for various reasons (see link here for some perspective). Those of us who care about sharing science with students and the world at large should be glad that so many people have heard the call and are on the team, no matter their final career path. Working together, no matter our current professional role–and with help from our non-scientist colleagues in journalism, communications, public policy, and other fields–we can spread the word about how much we love learning about the remaining mysteries of the world, the new answers that come along, and the challenges of solving problems with our knowledge. Go, Team Science, both in the field and from the sidelines!

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Joanne Kuykendall, NRCS District Conservationist and Kristine Harper, summer employee test soil moisture near Palmer, AK. By: Ron Nichols / Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service., via Wikimedia Commons

 

Cover photo: “Smiling at the Lab Bench,” By Katherine Stember (Own work) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

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