Or at least that’s what I’d probably say if you caught me on the street. Fact is, for modern scientists, there can be a painstakingly high degree of specialization, minutiae, and technical training entangled with their work. Some areas of science are somewhat relatable due to the high amount of news coverage – e.g. evolutionary studies or climate change. Others would require a 30-minute lecture just to make the layman appreciate the big picture associated with their subfield. Understandably, scientists may grossly over-generalize the subject to accommodate for the fleeting attention-span of colleagues, friends, family, and acquaintances. However, this can lead to misconceptions regarding new discoveries in current events, statements in movies, and understanding of relative intelligence. It is highly unlikely that an evolutionary biologist would be fixing the Hubble telescope in space without months to years of prior training. Likewise, a PhD physicist may often be, at best, an informed layman on evolutionary biology, as with psychology or economics.
I was inspired to write this post due to a recent small crisis of mistaken identity with a pharmacist. In my mind, I just wanted to know how my prescribed drug worked, in her own words. The pharmacist was apprehensive and asked me to specify what exactly I wanted to know. I qualified by saying that I was a chemist, and that I’d be fine with whatever explanation she could provide. What I meant was that I could probably grasp enough information to follow along to my approximate satisfaction. The pharmacist instead gave me a puzzled look and told me that I should know this information already since this is a very common medication. I was taken aback by this declaration. Though I happen to work for a pharmaceutical company, I do not deal with any study of the synthesis, manufacture, clinical trials, or biochemical assays associated with drugs. I only deal with the various methods of purification, which do not yield any information on “mode of action.” Yet this person assumed that since I was a chemist, that I would know this information. And apparently, I had wrongfully assumed that the pharmacist, in the multitude of drugs that she dispense, would have known further information about this topic either.
Though I may tell you I am a chemist, this is merely a small piece of my scientific identity. In the above diagram I’ve traced my field from general STEM to my dissertation topics. So, then –
who would you say I am?