Science Outreach: A Matter of Job Security

Stefanie Ritter

Originally published September 2007.

Often times, when someone asks me the all-encompassing “what do you do?” question, I casually respond that I am pursuing my Ph. D. in neuroscience. Nine times out of ten my answer is followed by a short “Oh” and then a change in conversation, while the remaining 10 percent usually counter by asking if I perform brain surgery like Dr. McDreamy from Grey’s Anatomy. Honestly, it is slightly disconcerting to think that much of the general public views science, at least neuroscience that is, in this off-hand fashion—I will not address the issue of the difference between an M. D. and Ph. D. As scientists, should we be concerned with this situation?

Raising science awareness in the community is in some ways a matter of job security. Not only do we want to encourage young minds to pursue science, but we also need to cultivate an understanding and respect for science in those folks who will be reviewing our future grants or voting as our future politicians. Increasing science awareness in our schools is a logical starting point. Brain Awareness Week is an outstanding platform to enhance scientific awareness; however, March does not have to be the only time of year when we reach out to the community. Recently, Erin Hecht, Amy Anderson, and I decided to jumpstart an after school science program at Atherton Elementary, a school we had visited

Stefanie (center) on how not to look through a microscope
Stefanie (center) on how not to look through a microscope

during BAW. Complete with volcano demonstrations, cell pizzas, and of course a rat maze; we plan to do hands on activities with the students throughout the 2007- 2008 school year. It is important for young people to interact with scientists, replacing the stereotype of a person in a lab coat with the schema of someone who is relatable and possibly a grown-up version of them.

Organizing a science club is not the only way to be involved, however; many schools have a career day where you can give a short presentation on what you do as a scientist. Simply contact a school in your area and ask for more information about a career day. Especially if you have kids, this is an awesome way to connect with your children and their peers at school. Not to mention, it is incredible to interact with the students and also personally rewarding. Without fail, I am always amazed at the kids’ profound questions and sincere curiosity.

As important as it is to intervene in a young person’s life, some people might prefer to interact with the older community. Emory has a number of forums which are open to the public and act as an informal question/answer session. Depending upon your area of expertise, you may be able to contribute or even organize a forum in your field.

As scientists, we have a vested interest in how the public perceives science. Reaching out both raises awareness and increases respect for science. It is also incredibly rewarding.

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