My Job Isn’t Like That! Scientist

Written for TotalJobs June 2014

dr brown

The icon of the scientist brings to mind an image that has been built and maintained by all types of media. We’re used to seeing a stern-faced, spectacled man in a white coat carrying a clipboard and looking important, but this doesn’t really tell us much about what they do.

Science breaks down into many disciplines, each of which has their own focus and specialities – so it is no wonder that the image many of us are used to seeing on screen may not accurately capture what a scientist’s job really entails. Here is a list of some of the more fantastical myths about what the scientist does and how they compare to reality.

They work in isolation (with plans of world domination!)

Some of the most iconic scientists of literature and film also happen to be the most notorious villains. If you look to those classed as doctors you find: Frankenstein, Octavius, and Doom to name but a few. They give the impression that scientists are megalomaniacs who are hungry for power. They aim to take lives or – shutting themselves off from the world – create their own. In pursuit of world domination these scientists appear to be the epitome of evil (think: Dr. Evil!).

It would seem that those considered scientific are shown to be immoral outcasts working to their own gain – this isn’t really fair, especially considering the role of doctors! Scientists on the whole look to expand the body of knowledge accumulated by all of those practicing in their particular field. Not hidden away but contributing research and findings as part of a collective.

Martin White MD FFPH, Professor of Public Health at Newcastle University, explains that his job is an applied science which involves not just scientific expertise, but also an ability to engage with the outside world – members of the public and patients as well as stakeholders from various sectors: “Most of what I do involves managing people and projects, and communication skills are very central to this. If I only had to deal with inanimate objects, my life would so much simpler!”

They use technology to predict disasters and ultimately save the world

Perhaps in reaction to the evil doctors of classic cinema, or an attempt to level the playing field at least, some more recent films have shown the scientist to actually be the hero. Now that we live in a more technology obsessed world, the technologically-minded are now more revered. It is probably for this same reason that we are getting more used to the occasional scientist hero, using gadgets to save the world.

The heroes of films such as Avatar and The Day After Tomorrow are in fact scientists who are able to fight for their cause and enact change, in the latter case through use of technology. Cast in a more positive light, we see the compassion of the activist – though scientists aren’t quite using avatar technology or fighting against the end of the world! Not yet anyway, but we will look to the Dennis Quaid’s to save us when that day comes, whether it be tomorrow or the day after…

They make gadgets and travel through time

Whether the menacing villain or the activist hero, films give the impression that scientists are eccentric types who devote much of their time to their inventions. Not just limited to making doomsday devices or contraptions that put you in the body of a 10ft tall blue-skinned Na’vi, the wacky inventor is the light-hearted mad scientist whose creations follow a deep passion for the sciences, think: Wayne Szalinski of Honey I Shrunk the Kids and Dr. Brown of Back to the Future.

Although shown to be a hapless figure that can create problems just as much as solutions, they are shown to mean well and are led by an enthusiasm for discovery. It is this enthusiasm that is perhaps glimpsed in TV scientists Brian Cox and David Attenborough. Where science was once seen as a straight, objective affair – these TV personalities have best captured the passion of the scientist, to explore and document the natural world.

They stand around in white coats conducting experiments in laboratories

When they are not the focus of the story, we are most probably used to seeing the scientist as a white-coated man standing around in a lab, or in front of some needlessly flashing buttons, looking intently at different coloured liquids in unusually shaped beakers.

Professor White, who was recently appointed as Director of Fuse: the UKCRC Centre for Translational Research in Public Health, does actually spend much of his time conducting studies in social science! Commenting on the archetypal scientist of television/film, Professor White says “I think the archetypal scientist tends to be a laboratory boffin, mixing chemicals, studying particles etc… My particular field of work involves experiments, in principle using the same designs as those done on laboratory animals or in test tubes or particle accelerators.” 

Films may have captured the surface level of experimentation in science, but far from standing around, there is a lot more to it. Professor White insists that a scientist should possess “solid specialist knowledge and skills, patience, and above capacity for hard work…One needs a high degree of emotional resilience to work in such a hot house environment. People who can’t take the pressure don’t last so long and often decide it is not for them.”

Some things the films get right:

  • The white coats – in some cases it is necessary!
  • They aren’t superhuman geniuses necessarily, but they’re usually in the top 1% in terms of educational achievement.
  • Evidently: conducting experiments in laboratories…
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