Researcher Life: Skype a Scientist Experience

‘Did you know in the 5th Grade, that you would be a scientist when you grow up?’ This was one of the questions I got from a 5th Grade class I was matched with under the Skype a Scientist program. I smiled to myself as I answered ‘No, I hadn’t even considered it’.

Early 2019 I got matched with a few classrooms under the Skype a Scientist program. I knew this would be an experience I would enjoy, but I was surprised nonetheless. The conversations were easy flowing. They triggered my reflections on life and the way I communicate my research. Below are some of my post-Skype-a-Scientist thoughts on the insights I gained from this experience; and why I think we need more programs like this.

The earliest memory of my chosen career is a friend telling me in the 8th grade that I would be a ‘good psychologist’ because I have ‘good listening skills’. This caught me off guard. Some of my family members had studied psychology, sure, but being a psychologist never occurred to me.

By the end of 9th grade, thinking about my career choices became inevitable. As a student in Mumbai, I had one year to decide what electives I would choose for ‘Junior College’ which would then determine what subjects I can major in, at University.

This brings me back to another question I was asked, ‘Did you do well in science and math in school?’ ‘No…and I didn’t particularly like them either’ was my response. I had a natural inclination and curiosity to biology (physics was ok too!) and understood these well. Math and Chemistry were the subjects I liked least. However, when asked the question above, I had to add ‘…but doing statistics is one of the favourite parts of my work today. It’s not like my high-school math at all!’

When teaching school children we need to emphasise that the whole world is not the world they see right now. The way they learn subjects may not be the way they are used in other settings.

After school, I had the options of Arts/Humanities, Commerce and Science (the harder kind, Mumbai University still doesn’t think Psychology belongs here). By this point, the only thing that genuinely interested me was human behaviour. I had started looking at people around me with a weird curiosity, like I was trying to figure out a puzzle. I wasn’t judging them. I just wanted to understand why people were the way they were and behaved the way they did. I had lost all interest in subjects taught in school, but if I had to spend another 5 years studying something, that had to be psychology. So that’s what I did – B.A. Psychology.

Much to everyone’s surprise, I, someone who scored decently in my school subjects only to get my parents off my back, was voluntarily reading textbooks supposedly too advanced for the year I was in. I even topped Psychology and Logic that year. This streak continued as I had more classmates and teachers to discuss things with. Things that mattered to me, answers that satisfied me and changed my world view. I had already undertaken 2 small research projects and a research internship by the time I finished my Bachelor studies.

Did I know at this point that I would go on to do a PhD? Still not. Why? I guess mainly because no one else was considering it. I knew I enjoyed research, had teachers who encouraged it, but I still hadn’t considered pursuing research as a profession that someone would pay me for. People around me were talking about being psychologists, therapists, teachers, or using psychology in training and human resource jobs. These were all viable options, and I knew how to get there, but I didn’t want any of these options.

This brings me to the second point we need to show our kids, that their milieu doesn’t have to be physically constrained by the people and possibilities around them. There is a lot more to the world than anyone can see and evaluate at any given time and place.

Almost everyone I was studying with did a Masters. To try and give one last shot at finding what I was missing, I chose a course that was the opposite of my Bachelor’s training. I did my masters at Bangor University (U.K.). My masters focused on studying the brain, scientific rigour, tons of research practices and advanced statistics. I had done research before and had taken exams in experimental psychology. I had solid foundations, but my research here was carried out with electrodes in a Faraday Cage. My classmates were doing fMRI and TMS studies. Suddenly, Psychology was a science, being carried out in a building full of scientists.

I struggled a lot with my subjects at Bangor, nearly failing some of the mid-terms. But again, to my surprise, I got the highest grade in statistics, and eventually the highest rank in my clinical psychology masters (40% of which were my research modules). I was in love with that thing whose older sister Math gave me nightmares in school. This time around math was being used to solve problems I found interesting. It was fun. It was concrete. It was useful.

By the end of my Masters, again to the surprise of everyone back home, I decided to turn away from the 8th-grade prophecy of being a psychologist. I was ready to integrate my B.A. and M.Sc sides. I wanted to be a researcher – of this field no one could agree on being a science on not. I wasn’t done learning psychology yet. I had all the knowledge. Now I wanted to take a problem and look at it from every perspective possible. A PhD seemed like a logical step, not for the degree, but for what it would allow me to do for the next few years. It was so logical, that I’m retrospectively surprised I didn’t think of it sooner.

This is where I bring the next question to you – ‘Are your parents and family members scientists too?’. My answer was ‘no’. The first time I met someone doing research for a living was during my Masters. After the Skype call, I thought some more about this. Was it really a lack of role models that stopped me from considering a career in science? My mother had wanted to pursue a PhD, but couldn’t. My father has always been scientifically and technically inclined having spent a career in IT. I had encyclopedias and tons of books. My parents fostered curiosity. I should have at least considered research as a career. And then I realised, that’s where the roadblock is.

One’s family may be essential to foster scientific thinking, but an entire milieu goes into choosing a career. 8th grade me thought I didn’t like science. 9th grade me thought I was going to choose humanities – the thing you pursue if you don’t get good grades. Having started studying psychology, I knew there was more to humanities than meets the society’s eye. But again, who will pay someone just to do research? No one I spoke to was hiring scientists. That’s not a job! I had these implicit messages from all around. Sure, I was interested, motivated, from a family of critical thinkers….but just because I could see myself cultivating a scientific attitude and a love for psychology doesn’t mean I could see myself making a career out of this ‘attitude’ and ‘love’.

This brings me to the third point about why I think programs like Skype-a-scientist are important. Students who, unlike me, may not get supportive parents, encouraging teachers or the opportunity to spend a year at a University buzzing with research projects, should still have the opportunity to discover careers that they could be passionate about.

When I was growing up, I knew a retired man who had spent his life working at a prestigious research institute in India. He was a tall, formidable man who behaved as if everyone around him was doing things all wrong. I don’t know if he was a scientist or worked there in an admin position, but for the longest time, it was his picture I could think of when I thought of leading research institutions. He often spoke to me, typically to correct something he considered ‘inappropriate’ behaviour for a teenage girl. I wish he could have instead said, ‘I did amazing research, want to know something about it?’ or ‘let me tell you a fun fact about the world!’.

This brings us to the fourth point – I wish adults understand that children are conceptually capable of comprehending a lot more than we think, but it’s our responsibility to make this knowledge accessible and age-appropriate.

Having participated in Skype a Scientist, I hope I’ve made a tiny difference in some of the kids’ perception of science. I hope at least one child somewhere in the world thought they could pursue science irrespective of their grades in school or what they were raised to believe were good career options. I hope some child somewhere was curious about what I do. I hope at least one child somewhere thought that science isn’t restricted to boys, or people of a particular race (and doesn’t turn you into grumpy old men!). And I hope no one in those classes thinks of an ivory tower when they think of entering research institutions.

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