Tag Archives: students

Why you SHOULD respond to student requests

by Shane L. Larson

To my colleagues in professional science:

There has been a tremendous and acerbic backlash over the last week against a current popular practice of K-12 students emailing professional scientists with a list of questions they would like the scientists to comment on. I too have received these emails, and I have to very clearly state (in case you haven’t already been in one of these debates with me) that I have an unpopular view on this issue: I vehemently reject the view that we cannot respond to these emails. It is part of our professional obligation to society to respond to these notes.

In the spirit of intellectual debate, which is the purported hallmark of our discipline, let me recount some of the many aspects of the arguments that have been swirling around.

The Scenario. Emails will sail into our inboxes from (usually) middle-school science students, that asks the scientist if they could answer a series of questions.  Here is a typical one that made its way into my inbox.


These emails are often clearly part of a classroom activity assigned by a teacher. There are those of us who diligently respond to as many of these as we can; we share them among our colleagues when we can’t get to them ourselves. But many of my colleagues simply don’t see the point in engaging scientists this way; they feel like they cannot or do not have the ability to respond to these requests.  Which is where the debate begins to swirl.

(*) They can just look this up on Wikipedia!  Perhaps. But even a casual inspection of science pages on Wikipedia will reveal that it has become an increasingly difficult resource to use, particularly for non-scientists. Wikipedians have taken the viewpoint that entries on the site should contain all the information one could traditionally find in a book. Many entries, especially those related to science, have wide ranging and rambling connections from all branches of science and more often than not divert into mathematical rambling. One earnest sixth grader asked me “Can you explain what a black hole is?” I would say the Wikipedia page on black holes is decidedly NOT for a sixth grader!

(*) These are thoughtless stream of consciousness questions about topics that they just picked out of a hat. They didn’t put any thought into these.  Perhaps in some cases that is true. But it is understandable — we’re talking about middle-schoolers.  For example, almost everyone has heard of black holes, but very few know enough to ask better questions than “what are they really?” But a carefully constructed answer from you can (and will) spark deeper interest, and can (and will) provide a better foundation for the next time they have a chance to ask a scientist a question — perhaps in class, perhaps in a public lecture, perhaps as part of an organized interface activity (like Adopt A Physicist).

(*) They should learn to read and process information from online and print sources; it’s a necessary skill.  That’s right, it is and they should. But they are perhaps 12 years old, and you are saying that from the far end of a PhD in modern science. Learning to read and process information, and more importantly learning how to find reliable sources of information, is something I spend time teaching my undergraduates and my graduate students. It is not as easy as you make it sound when you speak from behind your PhD. I’m sure if you talked to their teachers, you would find that they are doing activities to practice learning the skill you so ardently insist they must learn. But when you are a K-12 student, it is hard to exercise whatever mastery you have of that skill to glean something important about the modern frontiers of science.

(*) I don’t have time to respond to all the requests I get.  Does responding to a lot of emails from students and random members of the public take time? Of course it does. Just like answering your own students. Just like answering your collaborators. Just like answering your department chair or dean. Just like doing research. Just like writing grant proposals. We all have tremendous pressure on our time; that is a fact of life and simply the state that modern science finds itself in. And the truth is that we all spend time on what we value and prioritize; if you don’t value something, then you don’t do it or you don’t spend time on it. If you do value something, you make room for it and devalue something else — it all boils down to priorities and the calculus of not being able to do everything. If you aren’t doing something because it takes too much of your time to do it, you have to be willing to say, “this isn’t important enough for me to spend my time doing. I have other things that I think are more important.”

I get a handful of these requests, but not so many that I can’t answer them; far fewer than I get from my own students, to be perfectly honest. If I do get too many, I share them among colleagues. Given that our lives as scientists are dedicated to solving the hardest problems known to our species, I find it hard to believe that someone inundated by an unanswerably large number of these requests cannot figure out a way to get responses to these students.

(*) I don’t see the pedagogical value of having students email a scientist. Students shouldn’t have answers hand fed to them.  It is NOT for you to decide what is pedagogically useful, it is for the teacher who made the assignment. They have their own learning goals and their own objectives for everything they assign their students, just like you do in your own classroom. It is NOT for you to judge what they do in their classroom any more than it is for me to judge what you do in your classroom.

You should take one of the sets of questions you get, and try to find the answers on your own. Try not to view webpages and books through the lens of your professional degrees; if you find that hard, ask your own kids or a neighbors kids to evaluate a resource you think is useful.  I think you will be surprised — while there is much good science out there for people to find, there is a lot of not so good explanations as well. The signal to noise ratio is very low; you and I have been explicitly trained to work through that.

But the most important reason for me to respond to a student inquiry is they will get something different in a response from me and you than they can get from any book. Perspective, experience, personal reflection — the human side of science, the personal side of science, an illustration of what I think is important as a scientist, the history and heroes that I think are important that aren’t always described in books.

When I answered the questions above, what did I add that couldn’t be had elsewhere?

How long does it take to produce a star? Sure, you can look up the collapse time for a molecular cloud to stars, but I also talked about the scope of the question, pointing out that one could have also thought about the previous generations of stars that made the material that is needed to create a star system like ours.

Do stars have color? I made sure in my answer that the student heard the names Annie Jump Cannon and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.

Do I believe in life elsewhere? An opportunity to talk about a personal belief, and where that interfaces with research science on the topic — a chance to illustrate the all too human part of science. I also pointed at one of the finest explorations of the question I have ever seen — Peter Mulvey’s song, “Vlad, the Astrophysicist” (YouTube video here); the intersection of science and society at its finest.

In the end, I think it boils down to this: we like to make loud noises about the current state of public understanding of science, but tucking our heads down is part of the reason the world is in the state it is in. It may have been okay 40 years ago to keep your attention narrowly focused on research; but 40 years ago the Cold War and the military-industrial complex allowed science to enjoy unprecedented support in the form of funding and societal tolerance.  That is not the world today; science is regularly challenged and questioned, in society and in the halls of government, much to the detriment of our civilization and the future of our planet.

But all is not lost. There is tremendous interest on the part of students and the public about science, in large part because of the very prominent and inspiring successes of our experiments that society has invested in: LIGO, the LHC, the Hubble Space Telescope, and many, many others. A few of our august bunch are very prominent in the public eye: Brian Cox, Lisa Randall, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Before them there was Rachel Carson, Carl Sagan, and (still!) David Attenborough. They have set a fire in the minds of your neighbors and in the minds of every science teacher on the planet who are now trying to light that same fire in the minds of their students. They will do their best to light an ember, but only you and I can fan the flames. There is something unique and special about communicating directly with someone who has seen the Cosmos through the eyes of the Hale Telescope, or someone who has stood over the arm of LIGO, or watched a vista of Mars slowly unfold as Curiosity sends us a picture from over the next rise.

Out of an entire class of 7th graders, will you move and inspire all of them to a life of science? Of course not, and you don’t need to. But many of them will remember later in life that they once talked to a scientist who took time out of their schedule to respond to them.  And a few will be inspired.

In one of the many dilapidated boxes that my mother has carefully preserved is a bundle of letters I received in my childhood. One is a letter I received in 7th grade from an astronomer (physicist?) at the University of British Columbia, who took time to write a paper letter in response to an earnest inquiry from a young boy who wanted to know what it took to become an astronomer. I have another letter (undoubtedly a form letter?) from someone at NASA in 1986, assuring a worried and spiritually crushed young boy that NASA would, eventually, return to space in the wake of the Challenger disaster. These are paper responses, with stamps and envelopes and everything; not even as easy as an email.

These were scientists who made the time in their busy schedules to respond to a inquiry from a student, and in the end I think it made all the difference in the world.

A Message to my Students

To my students —

I was walking down the hall, and saw you all in the interaction room.  I saw you bent over pages of calculations furiously erasing what you thought was wrong. I saw you at the white board, insisting that you didn’t understand the “right answer” and would never be able to get it. I saw you idly staring out the window, wondering if you’d made a terrible mistake and maybe science isn’t right for you.

Stop erasing. You were right.

There is no “right answer.” You will get it.

You didn’t make a mistake. Science is right for you.

I have every faith in you, and your abilities. I know every one of you will be a great scientist, and contribute to our profession in ways that will make me swell with pride, and point at you and say, “that was my student, once upon a time.”  It may not be in ways that every science faculty member on the planet appreciates, values, or can even understand.  But I have faith.  I know the world needs every one of you.  And I can see more clearly than you, because I’m on the outside looking in.  I have faith in every one of you.  It makes me get up every morning, and come to work; it makes me answer your emails at 2am in the morning.

This time in your career is far and away the most important.  This is the time that YOU are deciding who you are going to be as a scientist.  This is the time that you are methodically organizing your scientific knowledge into the system that you will use to examine the world around you for the rest of your career.

I was reminded of this in recent days because the report card of Sir John Bertrand Gurdon has been circulating wide and far across the web.  When Gurdon was a teenager, he attended the independent boarding school, Eton College, where he ranked last out of 250 boys. His science teacher was quite adamant about Gurdon’s skills on his report card. Let me quote what it said: “…he will not listen, but will instist on doing his work in his own way. I believe he has ideas about becoming a Scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous, if he can’t learn simple Biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a Specialist, and it would be sheer waste of time, both on his part, and of those who have to teach him.”

Why does everyone care about this? Because Sir Gurdon is a developmental biologist who just won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. Not too bad for someone who shouldn’t be in science.

During the years of your training, you are going to cross paths with many professors who have many ideas about what it means to be a scientist, and even more ideas about what it means to be a good scientist.  They will think they know something about your future in this profession.

Ignore them.

Professors like to hear the sound of their own voices. We have been trained (and are currently training you) to believe that what you think is always right.  This is, of course, completely contrary to the principles of science. Yes, there are things that do work, and there are dearly held beliefs that we hold to be true.  But in the advising of students, as in science, we cannot possibly know whose intellect and approach to science will yield fundamental new insights into the mysteries of Nature.

Do your work in your own way; there is no right way.  Like all of us, your work will have to survive rigorous scrutiny and skepticism.  Some of your ideas will be wrong, but that’s alright.  That’s the aperture to finding out what is true.  Adhering to “the norm” and doing things “the way everyone does things” may be fine at McDonald’s, or in a dentist’s office, but it is not the best way to do science.

Sometimes you will be told something about your abilities and your prospects not out of spite, but out of honest concern for your future and because we are telling you something we believe to be true.  Graduate school will be too hard.  There are few jobs, and the nerds from Princeton and Caltech will get those before you. Your grades aren’t perfect, so that fellowship is out of reach. Blah, blah, blah.

The worst part of all of this well meaning advice is that it preys on the deepest fears that you hold about yourself, festering in your brain late at night while you’re lying in bed with sheets tucked up around your neck to protect you from vampires (is that only me? Oh. Well you get my point.)  I like to keep the Sunscreen Song in my mind during those long dark tea times of the soul:  “Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”  You are the only one who knows what the deep wells of your passions and ambitions are capable of.  Take advice for the well meaning intent it was given, then make your own way.

I was once told by a full professor, early in my graduate career, that I wasn’t cut out to be a physicist. I didn’t have a deep grasp on science, I didn’t have the ability to amount to much of anything in this discipline, and that I should probably be looking for a career outside of science and teaching.

I am only a mediocre scientist, I suppose, especially compared to some of the brilliant people I am privileged to call my friends.  But I love science, and can’t imagine a day when I don’t get up in the morning and think about science. I have had a great career that I’m sure many would be envious of — I’m a tenured professor at a research university; I had the chance to have awesome postdoc experiences; I have worked at and work with NASA, the biggest brains on the planet; I often manage to help students be unconfused about science; I have colleagues around the world who aren’t embarrassed to say hi to me in public in front of other big brains; and my mom and dad are proud of me.

But my real legacy, is all of you. When I am long gone, and returned to the star stuff from whence we all came, someone might look back at my life in science and ask what I did. The only answer that matters is that I played some small role in keeping every one of you engaged and passionate about getting up in the morning to think about science.

You are all going to do great things.  I have faith in that fact, and I’m proud of all of you.

Now get out of the office and go play frisbee. If you’re reading this, or staring out the window, you’re stalling because you’ve been sitting at your desk for too long. Go play frisbee, and let your mind wander. Science will still be here when you get back, waiting for you. There is something new to be discovered, something wonderful, and I’m pretty sure you’re going to be the one to find it.  You just have to ignore the rest of us.

With much admiration and respect,

— Shane