Reaching Out

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Members of the Outreach Squad
December 17, 2015

By Kate McGrath 

Survival is the top priority of graduate students. The first few years are spent juggling coursework, teaching, and busy bragging. Then the dissertation proposal arrives, and research takes precedent over trivial things like sleep and hygiene. It’s time to defend those big ideas. What could possibly go wrong?

Writing a dissertation is a notoriously isolating experience. You are alone with your ideas and your work, separated from peers by a sea of jargon. Imposter syndrome looms overhead, making it hard to discuss your research with the only person who truly understands it: your advisor. As science advances more generally, specialists of different disciplines and subdisciplines find it harder to effectively communicate. At the same time, granting agencies expect greater interdisciplinary collaboration, require researchers to broaden the participation of underrepresented groups, and to disseminate results more widely than is possible through technical publication alone. Some argue that because we can’t predict what research may be of public importance in the future, we should leave scientists to work in their ivory towers undisturbed. If so, researchers may be able to produce a few more papers over the course of their careers, but at what cost?

Perhaps the psychological benefit of human interaction is what’s at stake. Fellow graduate student Vance Powell put it best, saying he felt “energized” after a nonstop eight-hour day of outreach at a middle school. These kinds of interactions are meaningful to the public and have the capacity to better our collective understanding of science. As a child, I didn’t know a single scientist in real life, and those on TV looked nothing like me. Simply telling young girls that they can be whatever they want to be isn’t enough to change the perception of women in science. We have a responsibility to stand in front of the public and show them that scientists are not homogenous. Mounting evidence suggests that greater team diversity increases creativity and output, yet women and other members of underrepresented groups remain elusive at the highest academic ranks. We have the power to be an example for the next generation of scientists, and to do it, we have to reach out. Show them that science is cool and so are the people who do it. And once you’re feeling like you’ve changed the world, go write your dissertation.