Smells Like Team Spirit

I joined the Crowther Lab about 18 months ago, after arguing with Tom Crowther for about 3 days about why he definitely DID NOT want to hire me. I was a civilian after all, a non-academic, with zero scientific pedigree and zero desire to do administrative work in a scientific lab.

It hadn’t always been this way.

When I was a child, my parents thought I would be a scientist. I loved to watch the ants climb in and out of their hills, and I would take notes on their behavior. I spent hours in the prairies and woods of the farm I grew up on, catching frogs and “adopting” injured wildlife and unwanted farm animals. I imagined myself as Dian Fossey or Jane Goodall (substituting Rwandan mists and gorillas for Wisconsin swamps and mosquitos). In the end though, the language of scientific textbooks in high school and college left me feeling uninspired and disengaged from that world. It seemed that the primary goal in science was to remove all the fun and feeling. The excitement that I had as a child in the presence of the natural world and its mysteries needed to be removed in pursuit of objectivity. To be accepted into the world of academia I had to couch every enthusiastic observation in a thousand sterile caveats. I am an excessively enthusiastic person, so I left that world behind.

Seventeen years later, it took me a while (I say three days, Tom says 30 minutes) to figure out that I was not being hired for my logical and dry scientific intellect (shocking)- but for the very qualities I thought didn’t belong in science.

I wasn’t the only non-traditional lab member Tom was recruiting. A communications officer? A business strategist? He collected us, plopped us down amongst the scientists, and said “ask questions.”

And who were these scientists? They were from everywhere as well. Ecologists and microbiologists, data miners and physicists. We were a crazy jumble of odds and ends under the heading “Global Ecosystem Ecology.” The Crowther Lab was trying something a bit different.

I think most people can mostly agree that collaboration and diversity among backgrounds in a scientific lab is a good thing- data gets stronger when it’s shared. But perhaps this is typically envisioned in academic conferences or skype meetings in which the latest paper or research project is discussed in dulcet collegiate tones. What happens when you throw two dozen diverse scientists and non-scientists into four smallish offices and have them eat together, play in the woods together, frisbee together, and work together every single day?

The result, from the outside, can appear like chaos. But as with all of the healthiest ecosystems, when you sit inside it for a while, you see how everything relies on everything else. Abstract ideas need grounded data, regional distribution models need to be tested against global patterns, and every introvert needs to be dragged to karaoke at least once.

Thanks to my colleagues, I’ve learned to find the wonder that lies in those thousand sterile caveats, the power of objectivity, the art of data. In return, I can’t shut-up about their research, and I now insist that all of my family and friends learn about phenology, nematodes, and the potential of reforestation with all the enthusiasm I can muster.

I’m excited about science again, but I also value the importance of measuring out every little microgram of agar with precision (I swear to god, Johan, I really have).

When the scientific community builds connections with non-academics, we all learn more. Credibility is not damaged by accessibility. Good research doesn’t have to be obscure and fortified in jargon.  At a time when our natural world is under serious threat, the women and men who have dedicated their lives to understanding it need to have a voice outside of the laboratory. In order to encourage the communication of science to non-scientists, let’s start removing the walls around our labs. We want scientists informing policy in the real world and we want non-scientists adding diversity and creative dialogue to the research process. This happens when our labs become more permeable, when waitresses and MBAs are hired to work alongside PhDs and postdocs, when ideas are thrown around like frisbees and when enthusiasm and curiosity are considered as essential as intellect. Start reminding people like me of how it feels to sit in a forest and watch the ants.

Leave a Reply