What is it like to be a genetic scientist?

June 11, 2010

A middle school student from California asks:

"What is it like to be a genetic scientist? My friend is a total science nerd and wants to be one when she grows up. (Lame, right?)"

Believe it or not, being a genetic scientist is a rush. There are dull moments as is true of any career. But the high of figuring out something that no one in the world has figured out is pretty incredible. And watching other people use your work to figure out even more is surprisingly satisfying.

You can think of a genetic scientist like a detective solving a crime. Sometimes they really do solve crimes when they use DNA to catch a murderer or set an innocent man free (or catch the fisherman who is illegally fishing sharks or the dog who has been pooping in the neighborhood). Usually, though, they are solving life's mysteries.

They are figuring out why some diseases run in the family and finding cures for those diseases. They are figuring out how likely you are to have a blue eyed child. They are figuring out where your ancestors came from, what a Neanderthal looked like, how all living things on the planet are related, why we can talk and chimps can't, and so on. For anyone who wants to know how things work, genetics is a great career choice.

Now you might not realize this from your experience with science and scientists so far. Science in the classroom, especially in middle school, is dull, dull, dull. It is all the facts with none of the mystery solving. And science on TV and in the movies isn't much better. When Carly says she hates science on iCarly because it isn't cool, most middle and high school students probably agree. No wonder most of them give up on science during middle school!

The only scientists you've probably met are the ones you see on TV or in the movies. Who'd want to be any of those? Who wants to be Dr. Doofenshmirtz from Phineas and Ferb or Flint Lockwood from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs or anyone on The Big Bang Theory? Flint and those painfully nerdy guys from The Big Bang Theory are nice enough but few people would want to be them. And Doofenshmirtz is lame and evil.

Real science and scientists are way different than this. Real science is actually pretty interesting especially if you don't get too bogged down in the details. And almost anyone can be a scientist.

Scientists in the media tend to be white guys with beards and/or crazy Einstein hair. Most real scientists aren't like this at all. Women, African Americans, Latinos are all scientists and they really aren't that different from you. They just like to figure out why things work.

Scientists in a medical lab.
Most people studying science don't look like they do on TV.

So why are scientists portrayed the way they are in the media? Mostly because they are an easy target and everyone shares the same stereotypes about them. Lazy writers can easily add a goofy scientist to a story for a cheap laugh the way they used to with various ethnic groups and the way they still do with those hopeless, clueless sitcom dads. It would take an adventurous person in Hollywood to create a normal scientist in a movie or TV show. And we know how common adventurous people are in Hollywood!

Fortunately the people in charge know that this is a problem. And it isn't just that it is a problem because it makes scientists feel bad to be portrayed this way or that it is unfair. The powers that be know that this portrayal is bad for the country. As we produce fewer and fewer scientists each year, the U.S. will fall behind global competitors. And as we have a public who knows less and less about science, they will come to distrust it or make poor choices based on their lack of knowledge.

Two of the big science agencies are trying to change the image of science and scientists. The National Academy of Sciences created “The Science & Entertainment Exchange” and the National Science Foundation created the “Creative Science Studio.” Both are trying to help scientists and the media industry work together. Initially it looks like they are focusing on getting the science right in movies but at some point they will tackle scientists' image problem. And frankly they can't get started on this problem soon enough.

So is it lame to be a scientist? No, not really. It would be lame if they were like on TV but they're not. Scientists have a fun job with flexible hours, they make pretty good money, they come out of graduate school debt free, and they have a chance at doing real good for society. Sounds pretty sweet to me*.

*Of course as a scientist I may be biased.

Author: Dr. Barry Starr

Barry served as The Tech Geneticist from 2002-2018. He founded Ask-a-Geneticist, answered thousands of questions submitted by people from all around the world, and oversaw and edited all articles published during his tenure. AAG is part of the Stanford at The Tech program, which brings Stanford scientists to The Tech to answer questions for this site, as well as to run science activities with visitors at The Tech Interactive in downtown San Jose.

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