by Whit Gibbons

October 11, 2009

Last week, I received a request for an interview from Brian, a ninth-grader in Georgia, whose biology class assignment was to interview a scientist. Several of his questions are ones many people have, and some are especially applicable to high school students who might be interested in a career in ecology. These are some of his questions and my answers.

Q. Can you please define science?
A. The basic definition of science is that it is knowledge. The term can also refer to the system by which knowledge is acquired, as when scientists state that they are "doing good science."

Q. Do you use the scientific method, step by step, like we learn in school?
A. Sometimes, but science can be advanced in ways other than through hypotheses and experiments. For example, landing on the moon and picking up moon rocks was an important step in lunar science, even though no hypothesis was required to go there, pick up rocks, and observe them. We know more now than we did before the lunar landings.

Likewise, serendipitous natural history observations often increase our knowledge about plants and animals even though no planning was involved. The scientific method is a valuable tool and can extend observations to the next level of understanding, but descriptive science based on chance observations can also be valuable. Sometimes we do not know enough to ask particular questions or form hypotheses, so descriptive and opportunistic observations are first needed.

Q. What is the most challenging obstacle you face as a scientist?
A. I imagine most scientists today would agree that the most challenging obstacles are acquiring funding for basic scientific studies and dealing with university and government bureaucracies, including such time-consuming tasks as submitting applications to funding agencies, complying with regulatory procedures, and filling out forms that do not relate directly to the science being conducted.

Q. Does science interfere with your religious beliefs?
A. This should not be a problem for anyone who is open-minded about the questions being asked. Religion and science can and do coexist. Galileo serves as an excellent example of the importance of questioning religious beliefs in the context of scientific study. In defiance of religious dogma at the time, he stated that the earth revolved around the sun, not vice versa. When objective scientific facts do not conform to particular religious beliefs, we should question the latter, not the former.

Q. If I were to follow in your footsteps what advice would you give me as a ninth-grade biology student?
A. I cannot claim to have done this flawlessly myself, but ideally you should study hard and take all the language arts, mathematics, and science courses you can. Make good grades in all of them.

Today, of course, a knowledge of computer science applications and other technologies can be of great benefit for research. But an important part of developing a life sciences career in natural history is to have a continuing interest in the outdoors and all its inhabitants. That's where the excitement will always be. But if you are going to study it and tell others about what you have found, you should first be able to understand it at a scientific level.

Q. What do you do when an experiment does not go as planned or has an unexpected result?
A. Start another experiment, based on the knowledge you have gained about what went wrong with or what you discovered from the first experiment.

Q. In your opinion, what are some advantages and disadvantages of being a scientist?
A. Probably for most people the advantage of being a scientist is being able to pursue knowledge at your own pace and in your area of interest. The disadvantages include not making as much money as classmates who went into business, law, or medicine. Also, some scientists have positions in which they do not have a lot of latitude about what they can study. (These are usually the ones who make the most money.)

Q. What do you like most about being a scientist?
A. My favorite part is asking intriguing questions about the ecology and behavior of animals--and sometimes being able to find the answers.

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