The lab coat and lone genius – science’s most infuriating stereotypes

Television often portrays researchers as lab coat-wearing weirdos who hate social interactions, but the name of the game is collaboration plus hoodies. We need to get better at showing the public what we do, says Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

Humans | Columnist 11 May 2022

An Asian, a black and a white female scientist are in a laboratory wearing typical white lab clothes. They are discussing their research surrounded by files and computers. One of them is holding a clipboard.

Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images

I AM a person who likes things to be specific and accurate. In some ways, this is antithetical to being a communicator of science to general audiences. This requires helping non-experts understand complex ideas – like the idea of quantum fields – while deploying only a small fraction of the language we professionals use to talk among ourselves. It means glossing over details that can feel fundamentally important. Which is to say that I regularly have to grapple with what it means to talk to people about something when I know I’m not going to give them the full story.

I find it easier to be successful in writing. Here, I can choose my words carefully, and the “optics” of the work I am trying to get across are what I manage to evoke in the reader’s mind.

By contrast, one of my biggest frustrations is with how science is portrayed on television. There, it seems like a production mandate to have flashy graphics and representations of “what scientists do” that align with public expectations. The result? We get a lot of representation of people (often white men) in white lab coats, even though many (perhaps most?) scientists don’t wear a lab coat of any kind, ever.

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For theoretical physicists, the expectation is that we will have a chalkboard filled with equations. For some people that is accurate, but I dislike the feel of chalk on my fingers. I much prefer writing with a fountain or gel pen in a high-quality, bound notebook.

Part of what ends up being so off in popularisations of science is that we continue to get various versions of the lone genius: someone sitting at their desk or working at a chalkboard alone, thinking important thoughts.

The reality is that – as an introvert – I wish I got more time alone. My days are filled with meetings. Every single member of my dark matter and neutron star research group has at least one per week with me that is centred on their main research question. There is a member of my team who sees me in a meeting between two and five times a week. One of those is my group meeting, where everyone comes together and shares what they have accomplished since the previous week. They take turns asking each other questions. This allows us all to learn more and hone our question-asking skills, which is important for scientists.

I have other regular appointments that might seem peripheral and even boring – including to the participants – but that are quite important to the doing of science. These are the conversations in which we are planning for the future, navigating applying for grant money or lobbying for more grant money to be allocated so that our discipline is sustained in the future. Right now, I am spending a lot of time on the delayed Snowmass 2021 Particle Physics Community Planning Process.

This occurs about once a decade, and involves the US particle physics community getting together to determine what science in this field is plausible in the coming years and what experiments – maybe a new particle collider, maybe a new telescope focused on dark matter – should be built. The lengthy report we produce will be read by a government-appointed group that will determine what can be funded for the next decade or so. Participating in this process is time-consuming and doesn’t immediately advance my research, but it is also a key part of my job.

Ultimately, science is a collaborative enterprise, perhaps more so than any other area of academic endeavour. We depend on others to get our work done and interact a lot with other people, but, again, I don’t think this is well represented on television.

Instead, we get stereotypes of weirdos who can’t handle social interactions, when in fact we are a collection of weirdos who navigate social interactions just fine because our jobs depend on it.

Our work is also often messy. I don’t just mean that we argue, though we do. It is also the case that we often don’t think in pretty pictures. I wish we could show the public more often what our work actually looks like, so that we could help people understand what we actually do. At a time when anti-intellectualism passes for a mainstream political position, now more than ever, we need the public to be tuned into how our enterprise actually works.

Plus, in my corner of science, hoodies are a more standard uniform than lab coats. Shifting stereotypes about how scientists look could help younger people see themselves in us, to realise that we are everyday people, just like them. I understand the desire to dress things up for a bit of Hollywood drama, but I don’t think we have to try so hard to make science seem exciting. What matters is making sure we are able to explain why it is exciting. That is the hard part, and I won’t always succeed, but I do enjoy trying.

Chanda’s week

What I’m reading
I finished Sara Nović’s novel True Biz in one sitting, and learned a lot of deaf history, including why American Sign Language is so different from the British version.

What I’m watching
Baseball season is back, and I bleed Dodger blue.

What I’m working on
Wrapping up a paper with colleagues on the unique structures made by a hypothetical dark matter particle, the axion.

  • This column appears monthly. Up next week: Graham Lawton

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