The Philosophy of How We Do Science and Being the Cool Professor

Prof-like Substance has a post over at Scientopia about being the “cool professor”. He writes:

When I started my lab I had a very distinct idea of the type of PI I wanted to be. I had experienced some different styles and observed many others. I knew what my needs were as a graduate student and a postdoc and recognized gaps in what my mentors had provided for me. Above all I thought I could navigate that line between friend and boss where all my trainees would both respect me and want to hang out with me.

Oh, and I wanted to ride a unicorn to work every day.

I’m soon to finish up my sixth year as a PI and have mentored two cohorts of students at this stage. I’m hardly a grizzled vet of the mentoring game, but I’ve had enough experience to change my views on my role. There’s been a discussion on twitter recently about whether someone is a Mentor or a Boss. It’s a false dichotomy. An effective mentor is both. Sometimes you can spend your time leading your people in the general vicinity of water and sometimes you have to hand them a cup and tell them to drink.

In our most recent Pub-Style Science, Michael Tomasson and I had a conversation with some fine folks about the philosophy of science. I find Prof-Like’s post and our recent Pub-Style Science interesting vis–à–vis each other because they contrast how we *do* science with how *we* do science. The difference may seem subtle, but I think it’s important and is part of the reason I have been inspired to work with Michael to develop Pub-Style Science.

To me, the choice to use the scientific method to perform our science seems so simple. It is the elegantly simple framework of all our endeavors, seemingly based in objectivity. But, as one of our guests commented, “science is also a human endeavor and, unfortunately, humans are assholes.”

That’s the reason I think that what we’re doing could have some value. There is the methodology of how we *do* science, which I will grant is also rooted in historical constructs with largely European roots. Yet, there are also the cultural constructs of how *we* do science, and that is the part that I would like to challenge. Each time we start a Pub-Style Science, Michael seems to sweat a little under his collar before he offers the disclaimer of what our show is about: the tone is non-typical for academic scientific discussions. We don’t ask anyone to codeswitch from the cultural norms that feel genuine to them, and that might result in a conversation that feels uncomfortable to some. Unfortunately, academia is still an uncomfortable place for many people, especially people from underrepresented groups.

I originally agreed to participate if we could build a conversation that felt like the types of conversations I find myself having at scientific meetings, after the day’s activities have ended and everyone is sitting in the bar afterwards. That’s where I have gotten some of the best, most honest, and most useful advice of my career. The problem is that it can very very difficult for young women and minorities to find and enter those conversations. When I was looking for a new job recently, I looked very carefully at the departments I sent my CV to. Were there women in the department? Were there scientists of color in the department? There were some departments that I did not apply to because I didn’t want to be the magical rainbow unicorn and I didn’t want to worry about whether a department severely lacked diversity because that was what the faculty members were comfortable with. So, I want to take the same approach with Pub-Style Science that I hope people in science will take. I want to look around the table to seriously ask the question, “Did we really consider a diversity of participants here, or did we pick among our friends and people who look like the norm because that is who we know?” Then, I want to be able to talk about the objective methodology of how we *do* science.

We’ve talked a lot recently about who Pub-Style Science is for, and that seems to leave us at the crossroads of where to go. It started, frankly, as a discussion of topics we happened to be interested in at the time. It could certainly continue that way. We could maintain our focus on topics with a bit of an esoteric bent to them. We seem to have agreed that the topics of Pub-Style Science should be aimed at more junior scientists and scientists in training. That makes me wonder whether we should also consider more pragmatic topics. Choosing a lab. Starting your own lab. Finding mentors. Finding funding.

I also care that people look at our endeavor and see that people who look like them get a seat at the table and that they are valued for who they are. I know for sure that I don’t want to talk about the tone of what we’re doing anymore. I am convinced by the positive feedback we get from trainee scientists that, because of how we are having these conversations, we have the potential to do something that will positively impact them. To return to Prof-like’s post, which inspired me to think more about this, I don’t really care about being the “cool” professor. I care about being the honest one – one that is, at least in some way, doing the process in a transparent way. That means, sometimes, throwing your hands up in the air and just saying “fuck!” I was amazed when Michael Tomasson, Joshua Drew, and I were at at LeMoyne College by the number of of undergraduates that told us that they didn’t realize that faculty worry about and struggle with the same things they do and that their preconceived notions of how faculty should be were keeping them from thinking they could apply to graduate or professional school. I see that as a problem.

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