09. What am I?
It's June 15th, and I'm at the departmental happy hour. I don't drink, but I go to socialize with people in the department, and keep myself visible. Being visible in a department is a subtly important thing, and there's something confidence boosting about being recognized by people in the department you don't actually have anything to do with.
When I get there only the department head and a fellow PhD student from my cohort are there. She's just about finished with her dissertation, and already has a really nice Postdoc offer waiting for her, and she's waiting to hear back about a few other options. Eventually Hazel, several other professors, and another grad student in the department arrive (a good turnout is more than six people, and we tallied about eight).
In reference to my first paragraph, I typically don't attend the happy hours to have fun. I have social anxiety and a general lack of interest in the typical bar conversation, although at least Baxter's has a decent chicken quesadilla when I feel like throwing my money away. The conversation is mostly about travel: places people have been recently, where they're going, exotic locales they've done research, anecdotes about their lives, particularly as they relate to their work. Lots of conference trips, or field studies, with the occasional straight vacation thrown in. Several people at the table had been to New Orleans with enough frequency to have some familiarity with the neighborhoods, there was talk of California, the UK (which isn't really surprising since two of the professors, Hazel included, are Brits), and a couple tropical islands.
I don't travel. There's a number of reasons, including a general distaste for doing things by myself, major budgetary restrictions, and, perhaps, most significantly at the table today, the general lack of success I'd faced in my first four years as a PhD student. It's so important when you're a grad student to not compare yourself to others. It's already a rather cutthroat environment, and the last thing you want to do is make yourself feel shitty because you're not "as good" as someone doing completely different research and completely different work than you. But when you're sitting with someone you've known for the full length of your PhD career, and they're finishing and have been quite successful (three publications!), and you're scratching your way to recover from lost time and enduring a time-crunch to do so, it's hard to stay distant from the feelings of inadequacy.
On top of that, it's sorta hard to be doing the type of research inside the bubble of a biology department. Because I'm not really doing biology research anymore. I spent years doing basic research on spiders, then my Master's doing biotech work, and then four years struggling and failing to get research off the ground, let alone really find answers to the questions I had about spider evolution. And now what I'm doing is in a strange place I never really expected to be. I always sorta thought I was a biologist. I studied biology, I did research, and I studied some more. I read. I read and read and read, until I knew my way around all sorts of obscure facets of zoology. I was someone who was going through a library and memorizing the titles of the books, but not really reading them. I was a armchair biologist. I suspect I still in many ways am. And realizing that when you've been trying to use that background to be a research biologist may be a crucial key to how I've been feeling, and how I've felt for a while.
As I prepare for my comprehensive exams, studying from multiple blocks of background texts, all interwoven by the connective tissue of my own research aspirations, I realize I'm no longer doing research in biology. I'm not examining some component of an organism, or its relationship to other organisms, or the interactions that are occurring in some functional setting. I'm taking all the knowledge, all the experience I have as an armchair biologist, the things I've always found so interesting, that've left me somewhat at odds with the types of research I've been pushed to do, and I'm trying to figure out how to get other people interested too. I'm trying to figure out how to make other people armchair biologists. I'm trying to figure out how to make people learn. But when I think of that description, my mind jumps, slightly skewed, to the word education. But I am not a science educator, a teacher. I don't aspire to every day go into a class and lecture about general biology. Nor am I a traditional science communicator, I have no interest in being a visible figurehead, a cult of charisma like Bill Nye the Science Guy, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, or even, despite my love and idolization of him, Steve Irwin.
I want people to be fascinated by the content presented, not the presenter of the content. And so after hours of a mild professional identity crisis. I understand that I am still a researcher. I am trying to develop tools for science education, for science communication (is there a real difference?), and I am trying to assess them. I am trying to develop tools, and test their effectiveness. For certain, there are elements of what I am doing that I would identify as soft sciences (or, as I believe soft scientists prefer to call it, social sciences), or education research. Am I an education researcher? Is an education researcher a scientist? Am I science communicator? Is that a type of scientist? For the latter, I am fairly certain no, for science communication is in many ways a type of educator. For the former, I suspect it comes down to opinion. Since I am, in many, if not all ways using scientific methods to test (if not build) my implementations, then I believe that yes, in my current state, I am still performing science, I am still a scientist.
But I don't believe I am a biologist in any classical sense, not anymore. I may study biology, in a very textbook sense (in that I read a lot about biology), but I am not performing biology research. I am performing biology education research. It focuses on informal education, and indirectly science communication, but it is, in fact, research on education, with a focus on biological topics. One of my good friends, who has frankly been one of my greatest supports besides Hazel and Duff, expressed it thusly "You have a unique perspective, as your background is in the content rather than the methods." That statement is very reassuring for me. I am not a biologist stumbling into a new field of work. I am a biologist taking his focus, his passion, the content, and making its communication his work.
I am no science educator, I am a researcher of science education.
I may be a science communicator, but I also research science communication.
When I first changed labs, and was at a graduate student meeting, and we all exchanged greetings and introductions, I described my research focus as, "Informal Education and Science Communication of Phylogenetic concepts". And that is still an apt description. I am taking a specific field of content that I have been trained in for over a decade, and I am trying to figure out how to share it with others.
I am a scientist; the rest is peanuts.