The altruistic scientist?

Today a sequence of events which I will not be recounting here made the sort of angry-sad mix that leaves you unable to do anything apart from storm round the department until somebody takes you for a cup of tea.  The chain of events leading up this outburst are not important to this post, what I want to write about are my thought processes afterwards.

What sort of scientist should I be?

I’ve covered this before.  Science is a bitchy cut-throat world.  There are collaborations and group work but, especially at PhD level, it’s often an every-man-for-himself situation.  OK, we’re not quite pirates, but we’re not saints either.

Let’s deviate for a moment into psychology.  Weisgram & Bigler (2006) wrote an article in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology on girls and scientific careers where their introduction mentions two important theories;

  1. Women are more likely to value helping others in their job than men (men, if you want to know are found to value the following: making money, advancing their field, responsibility, challenges and prestige)
  2. People (whether they are men or women, but due to point 1 this may be more likely to be women) who value a job that helps others are less likely to pick science degrees or jobs, especially those in physical sciences.

Their study, if you’re interested, looked at the effect of “bigging up” the altruistic side of science to young girls and they found that a belief in the altruistic value of science increased an interest in science.

Putting the gender differences aside (now that’s an interesting post for another day) where does this leave me?  I started my science degree because I wanted to help people; I didn’t at the time think how much I would ever enjoy it as much as I do.  I love science and therefore I want to do well in my PhD, but I’ve realised the sometimes selfish nature it may need.  What do I do? My thoughts this afternoon varied between giving up and working as an ultra-efficient, always helpful secretary (kind of like Moneypenny but without the Bond innuendos) or taking on the ‘every man is an island’ approach to life.  Trust nobody, befriend no-one, get in, get the job done, and get out.

This isn’t just about science, this is about life.  What does it take for any one of us to succeed?  Is it a pipe dream that we can all just ‘be’ and find a Cinderella job where the slipper just fits or is everyone acting themselves through the everyday? When I was younger Rosalind Franklin was a hero of mine, an unsung hero in the story of DNA.  But even Franklin comes with rumour and discussion over her ability to share data and work with others.

My verdict was to be just me. If we didn’t have the pigheaded driving force of the self-centred then scientists would probably still be trying to turn lead into gold but it takes all sorts to make the world go round, including those in the middle ground.  To test their theory on girls, altruism and science Weisgram and Bigler involved the girls in events where they were spoken to by women scientists sharing their experience of scientific work and its altruistic benefits.  Maybe there is a place for the middle ground afterall.

Weisgram, E.S. & Bigler, R.S. (2006) Girls and science careers: The role of altruistic values and attitudes about scientific tasks.  Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology vol. 27 pp. 326-384

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2 thoughts on “The altruistic scientist?

  1. THIS. Yes, exactly. This was me Friday. 🙂

    I came to much the same conclusion, as I usually do. I have to live with me at the end of the day, asshattery notwithstanding, so I am true to me (while trying not to be completely naive). If nothing else helps, I remember that when I am done I can help make the whole process less ridiculous for the generation to follow me – altruistic perhaps, but it seems to help me anyways.

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