Shelling the stigma of a science education

Stephanie Taylor

“What do you do?” A woman was making conversation with me as we waited in a line.

“I am pursuing my Ph.D. in biochemistry,” I said, responding as I normally do to this common question. The woman’s eyes grew large. She laughed and replied, “I could never do that!”

She meant her words as a compliment, but they just sadden me. Never. She could never do science.

Why does she think science is so out of reach? Why do I now feel obligated to talk about shoes or the weather? And how many of you did I lose after the word “biochemistry?”

What is it about science that makes some people automatically turn their brains off? Somewhere in that high school chemistry class, some people decided that they were not smart enough — untrue — or good enough — never true — to get it, so they quit trying. They went back to memorizing whatever they could to get through the class and pass. But the concepts they glossed over are ones that everyone can grasp. It often just takes another explanation, a different viewpoint or one more analogy to drive the point home.

And that is why we graduate students get frustrated. It’s not about memorizing which formula goes with which situation. If you stop and think it through, you can memorize less, think more and learn more. I admit, this can take more effort.

Understanding requires more than memorizing.

Watching the light go out and the apathy roll in is the hard part. The mere mention of my field seems to throw up a brick wall between my audience and me. Ask me what I do, and I am proud to tell you. As a representative of my field, it is my duty to give an answer simple enough to understand. It is my job to communicate.

Then there is my favorite way to see science in action: through food. If you have not seen a YouTube video or better, a live demonstration of the Diet Coke and Mentos reaction, you are missing out. You do not need to know why it is Diet Coke and Mentos instead of Sprite and Skittles, but thanks to MythBusters, you can discover this for yourself.

I hate it when people assume that biochemistry is out of their reach. If you have cooked an egg, you have seen biochemistry in action. Ever thought about why the egg starts out runny and then, with heat, becomes firm? Inside the egg are proteins, rolling around each other like balls of yarn. As you heat the egg, those balls begin to unravel. Then, once unraveled, the proteins/balls of yarn tangle around one another and form a solid mass. They cannot roll around anymore, and you have a solid breakfast.

It is the simple things in science we see every day that excite me. Yes, new technology is sleek and sexy, but the principles that describe our world have been around a long time, and they are not difficult to learn. You just have to be willing to try.

Taylor is a biochemistry graduate student.