, ,

We’ve gone out for drinks after rehearsal, as per the ensemble’s treasured social tradition. With melody in our ears, laughter in our hearts, and the city’s finest craft beers in our cups, we reminisce and share arpeggiated memories, waxing eloquent about song and feeling and the zymological merits of summer saisons. At such events, I am dependably enthusiastic; I ask questions, and I listen, and I answer and ask again, wading deep through tales and truths, spinning out story like thread. And I am told:

You don’t seem like a scientist.

A statement made in this kind – neither the first of its sort I’ve heard, nor, I imagine, the last – invariably elicits strong but conflicting feelings, confusion and frustration and appreciation vying in equal measure for pride of place. I wonder: is the remark meant as criticism? As mere observation (though informed by what, observed through what lens)? Or perhaps, worst of all – is it meant as compliment, as a pat on the back for having, against all odds and in spite of my academic discipline, metamorphosed, a larval scientist become a well-adjusted and socially acceptable butterfly? I test each possibility in turn, running intents across my nerves, tiptoeing through connotations while a carefully noncommittal smile distorts my lips.

You don’t seem like a scientist.

On the one hand, I delight in the wake of cognitive dissonance that trails behind me as I move through my spheres of acquaintance. I delight in bucking the expectations of those around me, that the totality of what I am might play a small part in shifting how they perceive my chosen path. For I am many things in concert: scientist, dreamer, musician, athlete, incorrigible punner and Jungian empath and a hundred other traits and tendencies that coalesce into one high-energy, unflaggable person, a veritable neutrino embodied. Most Americans can’t claim to know a scientist personally; perhaps knowing me is a fine beginning – or at least, a beginning.

But there is a yet more curious, more insidious aspect to this observation – the fact that the statement can even be made. The fact that any preconception of scientist exists such that I could not possibly be one.

You don’t seem like a scientist.

Why not?

A cursory image search clarifies what a scientist should seem like. A scientist should be male, lab-coated, serious and poorly socialized and all together too intelligent for his own good, meddling with the laws of nature, playing at God, mesmerized by personal chaos yet simultaneously impersonal, even meticulously so, insensitive to greater human needs. Even now, this pseudo-scientist persists in the popular imagination. He persists in spite of such powerfully humanizing efforts as science writer Allie Wilkinson’s This Is What a Scientist Looks Like, or the Department of Education’s Drawings of Scientists project. No, this person, this caricature of a person, is but the archetype of the mad scientist, the stereotype of the mad scientist, and as scientists ourselves, as men and women with a love of method and discovery, we should be concerned by his staying power – and we should take charge of our apparent public relations problem. We should shift the image, and with great purpose; we should each day be substituting neighbors for noisemakers, and philosophers for madmen.

My friends, here is the short of it:

A scientist is not a lab coat and goggles; these are the tools, but not the person.

A scientist is not a flask of brightly colored chemical, boiling over without explanation or reason on an abandoned bench; this is a product, but not the person.

A scientist is not an amalgam of madnesses and neuroses, nor a mess of untended hair, nor a maniacal gleam beyond the eyes – these are the tropes, but not the person.

True, any one of us may be any one of these things from time to time. We are, after all, only human, and as such cannot always vouch for the state of our hair at the end of a twelve-hour day. But to be all of these things? All at once? Pure nonsense.

In this way, controverting stereotype proves a useful exercise; however, it is a method that yields little other fruit, and it cannot fully render up an answer to the question of what a scientist is. So if we reject the premise that a scientist is defined by what she is not – then how should we define her? How do we address her complexities, those aspects of her with three-dimensional life, the nuances and subtleties that defy simpler classifications? How do we define her publicly, to ourselves, to our family and friends – to strangers who have never met her before and expect little more than a laugh in a lightning storm?

In response, I say: if you must define her at all, define her by her mind. Define her by her approach. Define her by her vision, and by the unique and extraordinary way she interacts with her world.

This is who she is:

A scientist is a tinkerer, a puller of loose strings, a questioner of the commonplace.

A scientist worries the threads of what does not fit, persistent and curious and eager, unraveling sweaters in metaphor to see how stitches interlace, wondering at the summed complexity of small things.

A scientist drinks deep of logic and passion together, of practiced skepticism and childlike joy, determined and nervous and frustrated and beaten down and raised up in sequence and in series, driven by her work yet herself driving it forward, the desire simply to know wired hard into her synapses. She is a juggernaut, and she will learn all she can while she lives.

Do I seem like a scientist now? For she is I, and I am she, and we shall ever burn brightly for discovery.