Friday, March 9, 2012

No Superstars? The 'Blog Nerd' Community and 'Science Pride'

Like many in the science blogging community, I try to pay homage to the chemists who've gone before me, especially those who've found their niche and momentum. These include Derek, Ash, CJ, and recently Paul over at ChemBark, who attracts a pretty diverse, passionate, and gregarious comment base.

I took issue recently with the stance of one ChemBark commenter, eugene, who stated
"...I sincerely hope [the "superstar mentality"] doesn’t go to any young professors’ heads in the future. Not only will you be vastly overestimating your ‘coolness factor’ with society at large, but you should focus on the science and your job please..."
Familiar scene for the "blog nerds"
Source:  U Chicago blog Science Life
A few lines before this, eugene refers to the "hype...created by the chemistry blog nerd community." (referring, no doubt, to Chemjobber's satirical piece about Dan Nocera's move to Harvard). Let's mull on that epithet: blog nerd community. I think that, by and large, we chem-bloggers enjoy this gig, which is critical because we don't really make our living here - we're all scientists by day, and writers after hours. Our online community encourages, supports, and challenges us. And sure, we're nerds . . .didn't you hear that that's cool nowadays?

But I digress. Back to eugene's comments: "...focus on the science and your job, please." I must know, what's so wrong with wanting recognition for hard work? 

Hey, it's my grad school advisor!
You've all heard the oft-repeated stigma, chemists as introverts, passing up individual glory, monastically devoted to our work until we die at our benches, pipette in hand. There's an ingrained mentality at work here, stating that the discipline is bigger than any one scientist. Chemists write all of their procedures in passive voice, deferring credit, as if the flasks and reagents had jumped up and performed the reactions themselves. I feel like eugene's comments boil down to: "Sit down, shut up, work hard, and hope it all works out."

Derek Lowe recently wrote a telling editorial, in which he explored reasons why most students shy away from work in STEM fields. Quoth the Pipeline:
"...if money and social standing are your motivating factors, you've probably ruled out the sciences for those reasons alone...I definitely did not go into science to become rich 
There's another factor that doesn't get as much attention as it should: It takes a certain personality type to really get into this stuff. "Yes, it does," I can hear people saying, "and it's the one that we call nerdy." That can help, true, although not all of us in the labs live the stereotype"
Happiest scientist I could find!
(Although her PPE is not quite right...)
Source: 123RF
Yes. Myself, for one: I'm firmly on the ENTJ side of the Myers-Briggs, but the thought of discovering new reactions still gets me to work in the morning. So, I ask you: why can't chemists be proud of their success? Become champions for our cause, rally around research, take credit for our role in society? If judges judge, and singers sing, why can't chemists react?

Chemists: When you go to work today, before you slip on your lab coat and gloves, pause a second to think about all the time and effort you expended to be standing in front of your hood. Enjoy it - you're a superstar.


  1. It's not just being proud of what you do, be boastful. Seriously ... Nocera may grate on me from time to time. But, he's getting his, and, frankly, he deserves it. The passive voice the non-advocate scientists ... this one of the reasons why scientists don't make the "big bucks". If we touted and blew our own horn as much as the wall street financiers, some of these problems would go away. Certainly, there are new problems to be gained with the bravado, and we must be cautious of that.
    But, I agree with See Arr Oh - Be proud, VERY proud of what you do. Good chemistry is really difficult and exceedingly worth while.

    Loved this post! I'm all revved up for my day now!

  2. So, scientists are criticized for sitting in their ivory towers and not engaging with the general public and popularizing science enough. But when they do, they're criticized for taking on airs and not taking their jobs seriously enough.

    This is why I usually don't read any comments threads.

  3. Unstable IsotopeMarch 09, 2012 9:28 AM

    I think you're getting to a larger point - scientist, and chemists especially, need to change the way they engage with the public at large. For many years this involved talking only to ourselves and finding communicating with the public tedious. I think the public has proven it does hunger for science stories - gimme a break how many people know anything about cosmology or particle physics yet the media follows both topics endlessly. If bragging is the way to go, I say let's do it.

    It's amazing how much you can accomplish by sounding confident and assuming people are as excited about what you're saying as you are.

  4. I plan to audition for the PBS host position. So do some of my colleagues. Hopefully, we're the start of a sea change...time will tell.

    1. I think that a talking dog would be a shoo-in for the PBS position. None of the other candidates will even have a shot! ;)

    2. Thanks for the vote of confidence....although ChemBark might have a proverbial "leg up" on me.

  5. Great post and thanks for the plug. The Greenes and the Hawkings have no shame, so why should we?

    P.S. Also wanted to say I enjoyed your post on the selectivity review in J Med Chem...still working through it.

    1. Thanks, Ash! Good to hear from you over in these parts!

  6. I think I was mostly trying to say that: yes you can be proud of your success, but at the highest levels the expression of that pride can come at the expense of other scientists who actually do the work as well.

    In fact, it often does work that way and I thought that grad students and postdocs (i.e. most blog authors) would keep in mind their one minute of glory in the 'Acknowledgement' section of their bosses talks and not mete out blind hero worship since that is already accomplished by the academic community and by the media whenever any one principle investigator becomes 'famous'.

    You're a little bit into Organometallics, since you did the post on that roundtable, so take a look at Nocera's work on this system and we can discuss whether it's an accidental discovery where nobody knows what's really going on and whether there is too much hype here. At this point, someone from Florida Keys university (made that one up) who decides to work on it has as good a chance to improving the system as Nocera if they have access to good graduate students and the funding. Like I said over at Paul's, Nocera is a great chemist and a great group leader, but he's also a really good salesman and since we're trying to improve science as a whole, you have to be careful to distribute funds to as many people who can do the work. And yes, that does mean distributing a lot to MIT and Harvard because too many excellent students bought into the hype that they need to go there to do great science, and since you need students to do the science, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  7. I really love this piece and couldn't agree more with it. Although I'm a Molecular Biologist, this applies to our field as well. I, on the other hand, love to talk about what I'm doing, who it's affecting, and it's practical applications... even if it's at the grocery store check out, and I see nothing wrong with it. Be proud of your science and what you accomplish with it.

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