The Impossibly Ideal Scientist

Image and artwork created by Lindsay Walton

The solving scientist: can this be fixed in time?

Beverly Crusher. Roy Hinkley. Emmett Brown. Samantha Carter. Sheldon Cooper. The Doctor. Abby Sciuto. Temperance Brennan. What do each of these scientists have in common? From creating a Geiger counter out of bamboo, to discovering, identifying, and curing a disease in the nick of time, each of these cinematic scientists has completed impossible tasks. Often works of fiction create all-knowing scientists who can solve any problem posed to them in the nick of time. However, do these depictions affect public expectations and imply that scientists are experts in every scientific field imaginable?

During recent years, many stereotypes about scientists have shifted, allowing researchers to shed the traditional “geeky” scientist persona. Some say that new perceptions of scientists reflect their cinematic portrayal as heroes and experts, “mavericks” who overcome obstacles both cerebral and physical in nature, persevering until they successfully save the day at the last moment possible.

However, how do these changing ideas about scientists translate to public expectations of the average scientist? Do “maverick” scientists portrayed in film cause people to idealize scientists and lead to the expectation that they will have all the knowledge Data, the android in Star Trek, has in his memory banks? In a recent survey, 49% of polled scientists stated that they felt the public has unrealistic expectations about the speed at which scientists should generate solutions to problems. Perhaps scientists feel the pressure of comparing themselves to their science fiction counterparts. The data certainly shows that the public has historically had high expectations for scientists. When polled, most Americans predicted scientists would cure cancer within 50 years, with polling starting as early as 1949. However, cancer still has not been cured, as exhibited by the recent National Cancer Moonshot proposal generated by President Obama, pushing for research funding to improve cancer patient outcomes.

Is it even possible to be the all-knowing scientist? As a lowly graduate student, I know that I will never be as brilliant as Dr. Beverly Crusher, who could probably cure cancer within one single episode. However, I believe that each of these idealized scientists creates a good model of what we should hope to be as scientists — individuals who thrive on the work, constantly learn new things, contribute to current knowledge, and reward the faith and trust that the public places in them.

Peer edited by Kaylee Helfrich. Image by Lindsay Walton.

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Dr. Margaret Scarry Named New Director of the Research Labs of Archaeology

Congratulations to Dr. Margaret Scarry! A longstanding faculty member of the Anthropology Department at UNC-CH, Dr. Scarry was recently promoted to the Director of the Research Labs of Archaeology (RLA) and Chair of the Curriculum in Archaeology. Having received her PhD from the University of Michigan in 1986, Dr. Scarry has since garnered professional renown for her research on the cultural, social and economic practices relating to the production and consumption of food. Specifically, she explores such foodways of the late prehistoric and early historic peoples of the southeastern United States by using archaeobotanical data.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Scarry.

Dr. Scarry (center) with her colleagues Dr. Lee Newsom (left) and Dr. Gayle Fritz (right) at the Southeastern Archaeological Conference in Athens, GA.

For those who are not familiar, the UNC RLA’s primary mission is to enhance knowledge of the archaeology and history of the ancient southeastern United States, but broadly offers support for both student and faculty archaeologists in classics, religious studies, linguistics, and gender studies in addition to anthropology. The RLA curates vast archaeological collections meanwhile supporting graduate student and faculty research in the southeastern United States and abroad. Most importantly, this mission is constantly expanding to encourage archaeologists who work abroad–from Dr. Patricia McAnany’s participatory research in the Maya region of the Yucatán Peninsula to Dr. Silvia Tomášková’s research on the stone engravings of South Africa. This collaborative and interdisciplinary tenet of the RLA is also apparent in the Curriculum in Archaeology. Although housed in the RLA, it was first created through a working group of archaeologists across disciplines who felt their diverse approaches to archaeology offered a strong and unique curriculum for undergraduate study.

Scarry Pull QuoteI had the chance to sit down with Dr. Scarry recently to speak about her new roles and what’s in store for the future.When I asked Dr. Scarry about her plans for the RLA, she responded with equal parts excitement and pride. “I have a fantastic group of collegial and enthusiastic people who work with me,” she says. Just having received an external review last year, both the Curriculum and the RLA were heralded as “gems,” but are still relatively unknown on campus and in the general public. As a result, Dr. Scarry mentions, “one of the things I want to do is grow our reputation so that we are more visible.” This visibility will not only strengthen “the ties amongst archaeologists across campus” but also create a place for both graduate students and faculty members to succeed.

Dr. Scarry is also immensely proud of the RLA’s strong relationship with Native American communities, both on campus and more broadly. “We’ve tried to be a leader and a partner, to be sensitive to the political and ethical issues of the conjunction of archaeology and Native American concerns.” She thinks it is imperative to continue to foster these relationships, and is actively seeking out opportunities with other RLA faculty members to develop similar relationships with other communities worldwide.

Further, Dr. Scarry is aiming to expand the technological resources of the RLA available to student researchers. “We have a current initiative to work on 3D imaging and virtual reality and we hope to increase our computing capacity for that,” she says. Ultimately, Dr. Scarry says, “we encourage people to see who we are. I’d like for [the RLA] to be a home where people can get involved.”

As a graduate student associated with the RLA, I can agree with Dr. Scarry when she says “we value the students here. We have such a great community because our students push each other, not out of competition, but because there is a synergism, and we want to see each other succeed.” If you would like to learn more, click here.

Special thanks to Dr. Scarry for speaking with me. Peer edited by Suzannah Isgett and Alissa Brown.

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The 2015 Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine: Kiss me for science!

This year’s Nobel Prizes in Medicine were awarded to William C. Campbell, Satoshi Ōmura, and Youyou Tu whose work to develop novel therapies for the treatment of globally devastating parasitic diseases such as River Blindness, Lymphatic Filariasis (Elephantiasis), and malaria. While this work was certainly important, the greatness of the awardees is already prominently displayed on the front page of the Cell website.

“I also hope that kissing will bring not only love, but also attenuation of allergic reaction.” ~Dr. Hajime Kimata

Less well known are this year’s Ig Nobel prize winners, which were awarded at the 25th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony on September 17th, 2015. This year’s Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to Hajime Kimata, as well as Jaroslava Durdiaková and colleagues Peter Celec, Natália Kamodyová, Tatiana Sedláčková, Gabriela Repiská, Barbara Sviežená, and Gabriel Minárik. The topic of their research? The health benefits of intense kissing (and other interpersonal activities). Continue reading