Thursday, June 9, 2011

Why it's cool to be a scientist (especially an anthropologist)

From here.
This month, I am taking part in I'm a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here! which is a program that links up teenage students with scientists all over the world. We put together bios, answer questions, and do live chats with them. I am looking forward to the chance to share my vast knowledge of ladybusiness anthropology -- and biological anthropology more generally -- with students who are looking to find out whether science is boring or fun.

The way this project is set up is that, over the course of the few weeks we interact with the students, they vote us off one by one; the last person left wins 500 pounds to use towards a science outreach project. If I win, I hope to put these funds towards a project that will link young people together to share their stories of how their lives vary, and what impact that has on their biology. My hope is that this project will achieve two goals: first, to get young people to observe their own bodies and biology in order to be more aware of the science that surrounds them, and second, to show them that variation is what is normal. In the teenage years (and even earlier), there is often a lot of peer pressure to fit some culturally-sanctioned definition of "normal." But what is normal, really, when we all come from such different places and lead such different lives? When we can directly observe how our lifestyle and environment impact our biology, it becomes clear that difference, not similarity, is the true normal.

As a companion piece to my bio, I would like to share why I think it's cool to study and enjoy science.

Science is fun
Found here.
I first got really interested in science because of my AP Biology teacher. Mr. Cabral demonstrated his excitement and zest for biology every day. One day I got so caught up in what he was talking about -- the potential impact of genetically modified corn on crops throughout the country -- that as soon as I got home, I got on our AOL dial-up internet and started digging (this would have been the fall of 1996). I used AOL's clunky search engine and managed to find several interesting websites that talked about Archer Daniels Midland. I printed it out on three ring binder paper -- I think we were out of regular printer paper -- and brought it to him the next day. I remember how motivated I was to learn about ADM, and then how that internal motivation was reinforced by how excited Mr. Cabral was by my find.

This was my first experience with the kind of detective work science can entail. Yes you do experiments, you do labwork or fieldwork, you collect samples or make things blow up or work with stuff that smells. And there is a sense in adventure to that. But another important piece of the work of science is setting out with a question, and doing the sleuthing necessary to find out the answer for yourself.

That will never stop being fun for me.

Science is logical
Fun is what got me started on science, the constant sense of discovery and the enjoyment of developing expertise where no one else has it. But what has kept me in science has been an increasing love, even total devotion, to the idea of the scientific method.

Castle and Beckett, from one of my
favorite detective shows, Castle.
The scientific method is another place where the metaphor of the detective is useful. A detective has a question: “Who dunnit?” And then, if she’s a good detective, she develops a hypothesis about who she thinks did it, then methodically tests her hypothesis. If she finds her hypothesis is not supported, she produces a new hypothesis to try again, based on what she has learned. If her hypothesis is supported, she likely will want more evidence to continue to better support her hypothesis.

The reason I love this method is that, if you are willing to really become a good detective, you can detect unintentional and intentional bias. Some conclusions in science, especially the older stuff, and especially stuff on humans that is related to sex or race, was biased by the preconceptions of who performed and interpreted the work. The entire field of women’s reproductive physiology is tainted by early, false observations by a twelfth century monk that women are not human, that they have a seven chambered uterus, that women can decide on the sex of their babies by lying down a certain way, and wicked women will choose to have girls (Rodnite Lemay 1992). Even research in the twentieth century indicated that the sweat of menstruating women makes babies die and flowers wilt (Bryant et al. 1977; Freeman et al. 1934; Macht 1924). And of course, none of these things are true.

I believe that reality of science always wins. We are constantly becoming more aware of implicit bias and honest mistakes, we are constantly developing new methodologies to test our questions. My students, or my students’ students, will probably find things wrong with my own work and modify or correct it some day. This is very exciting to me!

Science solves important problems
I am a biological anthropologist. That means that I am interested in human evolutionary biology, and in understanding the interaction of biology and culture in the production of a human being. I think we can all come up with problems science helps solve, from making cars and homes more energy efficient, to saving endangered species. Biological anthropology can help answer these from the perspective of human ancestry, evolution and behavior. For instance, it’s great that we are making cars more energy efficient, but how do we change usage patterns? How do we get people to drive less? Really, how do we get a species that evolved to consider short and medium term problems and be selfish, to think altruistically and really long term?

In my corner of the field, bio anthro can help answer the following (and more):
  • How does environment and lifestyle impact our hormones?
  • Why do some people have a harder time having babies than others?
  • What is the impact of our changing environment, to one where we are sitting around more and eating more, on our health?
  • Does psychological stress impact our physical health? Can sexism or racism have real effects on the body?
  • How does moving from one country to another change your hormones?
  • Is taking the pill good for you?
  • Does what you do as a pregnant woman really matter that much to the health of your baby?
And that’s just the beginning.

Anyone can love science
I want more people, and more different kinds of people, to do science. But I also just want more people to realize how exciting it is to read and learn science. Becoming an engaged science reader, even as someone who already is a scientist, has been a wonderful experience for me. I have developed an appreciation for insects, found out about variation in circadian rhythms, and fallen in love with rivers.

I have realized that there is a lot of great science out there, not just biological anthropology, and it’s all worth fighting for. I have taught a lot of non-science majors since becoming a professor – literally hundreds and hundreds. And when I talk to them, many of them explain that the reason they hate science is that someone made them feel stupid: a teacher, a fellow student, sometimes a relative. I’ve heard several explicit stories where a student was told by a teacher that they weren’t good at science. I’ve had students break down in tears as they describe the sexism and racism that has made them decide science wasn’t for them.

And so, because of the rudeness of another person, the oppression of a system, or a series of incidents that just become too much to bear, they turned away from one of the most logical, exciting, and natural ways of thinking about the world. And many began to dislike it, then mistrust it, then not believe anything they heard about it. And who can blame a young person for turning away from a field, if that is what they are up against?

Nothing, and no one, should turn people away from science, because anyone can love science. Even if you never take another class on it or pick up a single textbook, even if you don’t become a scientist or educator or writer or any of the many jobs where you can use science, you can revel in the beauty of a photograph, the stories of triumph over adversity, the excitement of discovery. You miss out on the simple human pleasure of satisfying curiosity about the natural world if you don’t read science. In addition to improving access and eliminating oppression so that more people can excel in science, we need to make it possible for people to just learn and love it.

One of my favorite things about being a scientist is that I get to hang out with other scientists. At conferences, other scientists present talks or posters to talk about their latest research. If you listen closely to these conversations, along with the jargon, and the statistics, and the graphs and tables and lightning-fast discussions of various technical methodologies, you will also hear people abruptly and delightedly exclaim: “Isn’t this just so cool?”

Yes. Yes, it is.

Bryant, J., Heathcote, D., & Pickles, V. (1977). THE SEARCH FOR "MENOTOXIN" The Lancet, 309 (8014) DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(77)92199-7
Freeman W, Looney JM, and Small RR. 1934. Studies on the phytotoxic index II. Menstrual toxin ("menotoxin"). Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics 52(2):179-183.
Macht D. 1924. Influence of menotoxin on the coagulation of blood. Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics 24(3):213-220.
Rodnite Lemay H. 1992. Womens Secrets: A Translation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus' de Secretis Mulierum with Commentaries: State University of New York Press.


  1. i LOVE science and this post is a fun, inspiring read.

    Bella Vida by Letty

    you rock!

  2. Hey Prof. Clancy, it's Ray from 249 last semester. This post pretty much sums up how I feel about science. I truly believe everyone has some area of science that they love be it microbiology, anthropology, or astronomy. I think you're right in that people become discouraged with science after having someone make the experience painful. I think equally important is the idea that science opens people's minds to questioning hypotheses posed by others. Instead of falling back on an argument like "God did it" you can create a dialog and exchange ideas with others. In my opinions that's the true benefit of any science. It's for these reasons that I've made my own blog dedicated to the wondrous world of microbes with my aim being not only to show readers how awesome microbes are but to show them how it impacts society and health as a whole. The "isn't this just so cool?" feeling fuels my own passion for science and it's important for scientists to spread that feeling to others. If you're interested in my blog it's:

    You'll be happy to know info from an ANTH 249 project makes an appearance! haha
    Great post!

  3. Hi Ray, how great to hear from you! And I'm so excited to hear about -- and read -- your blog. I hope you don't mind, but I plan to promote it on Twitter :).

  4. This was a great blog post. I am graduating with a BA in creative writing, but science is my side passion. I love reading about science and talking about it with my siblings, parents and friends. I don't think there's any better tool for understanding the world around us, and it's awesome to see a program that is getting even more people encouraged and excited to be involved with science.

  5. Thanks so much! I appreciate your help! I've been trying to attract new readers and it's proving most difficult.

  6. Great post.
    I think reading about science is not only fun, it is the next step after the exciting engagement of explosions, fires and other "cool" science stuff everyone sees on TV and video. Reading helps to cultivate an attention span and the ability to concentrate so important for science, which is why I have the portion of my outreach includes my book reviews and my Kids Read Science and Teens Read Science contests!

  7. Thanks Bailey! And no problem, Ray. It takes a very, very long time to build followers. Twitter is a great place to find readers because lots of scientists and science geeks are there :).

    And I totally agree Joanne! I can't wait until my daughter is old enough to participate in your Kids Read Science program, it's really wonderful :).