I’m guessing most people wouldn’t guess that my response to this traditional conversation starter at parties would cause me such consternation. In a way it feels a bit like a party piece-cum-confession: ‘My name is Claire and I’m a chemist working at a particle accelerator’. I’m clearly a little uncomfortable with saying this and I’ve recently been reflecting on why this is the case.
I’ve worked hard to get through my degrees and am now an active scientist managing different strands of projects including one where over 1,500 secondary school students are completing real scientific research, called Project M.
I’ve published many articles, given many talks at conferences and to the public and regularly chat with some of the top academics in the UK. Yet I still feel uncomfortable when someone walks up to me at a party and asks me what I do.
The origin of this discomfort is perhaps not where you might assume it would be. Many people think it wouldn’t be surprising for a woman like me to declare that I struggle with an inferiority complex. I actually find this terrifying – that it has become a norm to expect women to have inferiority complexes – but this is another article unto itself. The origin of my discomfort lies with the fact that I am going to be navigating the tricky waters of explaining what I do.
Given the fact I’ve mentioned already that I am au fait with public speaking, you would quite rightly expect that it should be no bother for me to discuss what I do. I relish the chance to discuss my science, which I love, but the challenge I face is working out in less than five seconds how interested someone is and how much they know about science already.
More often than I would like, the word scientist creates an automatic disengagement – you can actually see people physically shirking back from the conversation. I’ve only told them my name and job title and this is enough information for them to disconnect. Why? Well I think it is fair to say that science STILL has an image problem. Rather than being seen as interesting or fun, it is difficult or hard. We also are living in a society where being an ‘expert’ no longer means people will trust you.
To be fair, scientists are perceived to be less likely to lie than the police or the clergy but only 12 per cent of the public are likely to seek out scientific information.
Add to this that many people reinforce the negative stereotype by recounting their woes with science as a child when prompted.
It’s very easy therefore to see how this stereotype perpetuates itself in a constant loop and why I end up standing on my own in a corner at parties!
This reluctance to engage with science is a big problem in the UK, as society as a whole is increasingly sceptical about scientists and their work. This is particularly ironic given that the UK punches well above its weight in science and has won many Nobel Prizes to date.
However, science still isn’t seen as part of everyday culture. In fact it is more often seen as a stagnant insurmountable pile of facts that is only accessible by the academic elite. Just look at women’s interest magazines for example. They apparently cover everything under the sun that women are interested in, apart from the science of the sun. Or any science, directly relating to women or otherwise! This reinforces the message that science is difficult, science is hard, science is only for the chosen few.
So what can be done? The answer is actually a lot easier than you might think.
My personal recommendation is to open yourself to the joy and beauty of science. Allow yourself to revel in the unknown, in the new discoveries. Don’t be afraid to grill people like me on what we do – if you don’t understand then I’m not explaining myself very well!
Hold me responsible and ask more questions. Attend one of the many free talks run by Café Scientifique and the Institute of Physics. There are also many science festivals that run fantastic programs for both adults and children.
Come see us at Diamond Light Source (our next column will be about this!) Most of these suggestions won’t cost you a penny but they will entertain and astound you. However, please stop the negative stereotypes and assumptions about science. Don’t automatically assume it is hard, it is boring, it isn’t for you. Because you imprint those beliefs onto yourself and the people around you and one of you could be the next Nobel Prize winner.
About the author
Dr Claire Murray is a chemist working at the Diamond Light Source particle accelerator in the UK.
She is passionate about chemistry and science outreach, and actively promotes women in science. Claire is leading @DLSProjectM, Diamond’s biggest ever citizen science project for UK secondary schools.