We need everyone in science, right?

Because of my past experiences, I have a very conflicted relationship with the perceived need to get undergraduates involved in research. I also have a very conflicted relationship with coursework, mostly for the same reasons. These conflicted feelings clash when it comes to the issue of graduate school admissions. By some accounts, physics and astronomy graduate programs only take students with perfect academic pedigrees: perfect grades from elite undergraduate institutions. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to see two definitions of “elite” that objectively match…one’s own institution is always the “most elite” depending on who’s doing the speaking. By other accounts, grades don’t matter. What matters is a candidate’s research experience. What did the candidate do? Under whose supervision? Was it publishable? To me, this is equivalent to asking who the candidate knows and that raises lots of questionable issues with me.

I’ll just say up front that I don’t think research should be a required part of any undergraduate science program. I think research should be totally within the realm of graduate education. I don’t think it should be required of undergraduates for any reason. Offering it as an option is fine, just don’t pressure undergrads into doing it. It seems to be mostly justified as a way of marketing oneself to graduate schools, which chafes me. I certainly don’t begrudge colleagues who do research with undergraduates, so please don’t twist what I’m saying into that. I know this isn’t a popular stance, but it’s how I feel and I’ve yet to see any compelling reason to change my mind although the possibility is perpetually there. One aspect of research I struggle with is just what the word itself means. Does it mean taking data on a telescopic observing run? That’s mostly pressing buttons; I don’t see how that helps. Is it data analysis? Again, that’s largely pressing buttons. Is it looking at an interesting problem computationally? Is it operating a particle accelerator? Is it looking up the history of a mathematical framework and applying it to a new problem? It’s probably all of these, and more. I just don’t yet know what the word really means. That’s part of my problem.

So, now that that’s out of the way I can get to my main point. One of my former students who is now majoring in physics, mathematics, and philosophy at NC State has an interesting take on the relative importance of theory versus research and their roles in teaching. Just to set the stage, I can reveal that he has absolutely no interest whatsoever in laboratory work or experimentation. None. None at all. He hates it. He loves theoretical calculations and pondering the philosophical implications of various interpretations of quantum mechanics. He says, correctly, that theory and experiment are both important. However, he also says that he sees no harm done when a student lacks interest in one or the other. Theorists can “ignore” (please note the quotes) experiment as long as they remember that all of their predictions need experimental verification or falsification (I still think falsification is a hallmark of science…). Technological innovations aside, experientalists have nothing significantly new to do unless theorists generate new predictions. Theorists lightheartedly make fun of experimentalists; experimentalists lightheartedly make fun of theorists.

But here’s the thing: they both make fun of teachers, and not always so lightheartedly. I’ve heard it personally. “Teaching is a distraction from science.” “Being a good teacher won’t get you hired at an R1.” “Why waste a brilliant mind on teaching instead of research?” “Don’t spend too much time teaching as a graduate student; your research skills will not develop.” “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” I was told by my main undergraduate professor (I’m debating whether or not to name him here…it was Dr. Bruce Carney) “You won’t make a scientist, but you’ll be a pretty decent teacher.” I wasted seven or so years of my life and wallet trying to get involved in the American Astronomical Society but was continually shunned because I am a teacher, not a researcher so I left and will never again associate with that organization.

Physics, astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, and all the ones I missed there all have one thing in common. Each is a coherent body of established knowledge with both the need and desire to further that knowledge by all possible means. Some of that is practical (research needs funding). Some of that is altruistic (scientists don’t grow on trees and must be cultivated). But to get to where we want to ultimately get, we (I very cautiously include myself here as part of one of these bodies…) need to acknowledge that we need everybody who wants to be associated with us.

We need people who excel at research but suck at teaching. We need people who excel at classroom teaching but suck at running particle colliders. We need people who excel at solving computational problems but suck at solving textbook problems. We need people who excel at written and oral communication but suck at predicting particle interactions. We need people who excel at building things from parts but suck as teaching someone else how to do it. We need people who excel at drawing but suck at using a computer. We need people who excel at solving mathematical problems but suck at writing. We need people who excel at public outreach but suck at doing research. We need people who excel at writing grants but suck at computation. We need people who excel at thinking about what an introductory physics course could look like even if they never get to realize those dreams. We need people who excel at pretty much anything that allows our discipline to advance. Why exclude someone just because they don’t look good on paper in one particular area? Why exclude someone just because they don’t know the “right” people? Why exclude someone just because of where they went for undergrad or grad school? Why?  I think it’s mostly politics. It’s partly cultural too I suppose, but culture can change if we let it.

As usual, I don’t know how much of this, if any at all, makes sense. I was inspired by my former student (who prefers not to be named) and Jacquelyn Gill (@JacquelynGill) to write this post. All screwups and misinterpretations of anything they said is squarely my fault.


Comments 2

  • Joe – I really enjoyed reading this post, because it made me think about the system we’re all in and how I came to do what I do in it. For me, having had the opportunity to do undergraduate research (at an Ivy League university) made all the difference in getting into graduate school in science because I wasn’t a science major and my grades weren’t very good (GPA around 2.4). I taught ecology and did research at a liberal-arts college for many years before moving to a full-time research position, where I still prioritize doing research with undergraduates over grad students and post-docs. I totally agree we need lots of different types of people doing, teaching, studying, participating in science in all its forms. And we especially need scientifically literate citizens, which many of our undergraduate researchers end up becoming if they don’t “stay in science” (whatever that means). What I expect from our undergraduate researchers (I run our summer undergraduate research program at Harvard Forest (http://harvardforest.fas.harvard.edu/other-tags/reu)) is that the students are enthusiastic, willing to learn, and that they grow intellectually/socially/culturally/etc. from wherever they are when they start the summer. We look for students who need the opportunity, not those who are well-connected via their advisors &c. And data, our bread-and-butter, shows that it works: here’s a preprint of our paper due out soon in BioScience about the value of undergraduate research: http://dx.doi.org/10.7287/peerj.preprints.1981v1.
    –Aaron Ellison @AMaxEll17

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