Posted by: unlikelygrad | October 31, 2014

Why doing outreach is good–from a selfish point of view

Most people I know in our department do outreach because they have to.  You know, they (or their PI) put some blurb about it in the grant proposal, and now they have to follow through.  Accordingly, I’ve heard it said that you should do the minimum amount of outreach that you can get away with.

Baloney, I say.

* * *

I discovered long ago that if I am sitting, staring at a manuscript and trying to force words on the page, I get stuck easily.  Back in California, I found instances of writers’ block to be the perfect time to go outside and deadhead my roses (which bloomed year round).  Here in Colorado, I try to write at home so I can work on home improvement projects (painting, etc.) at those times.  I also get my brain unstuck by washing dishes, folding laundry, and such.

The reason this works is that sometimes you have to back away from a problem and let your subconscious work before you can get past your roadblock.  Doing mundane tasks allows you to move your primary focus away from the important work but also leaves enough brain power to keep the thought process simmering on the back burner.

For me, doing outreach serves roughly the same purpose as these mundane tasks.  Except it’s better in some ways, because my brain is still in science-thinking-mode.

* * *

I think one of the pervasive problems in science today is that people are getting hyper-focused on their areas of specialty.  Don’t get me wrong; I believe that people have to specialize to a large degree.  But I also think the big breakthroughs come when someone is able to step back, look at the bigger picture, and bring something new into the field that other hyper-specialized people don’t even think about.

This is another bonus about outreach: if you’re doing it right, you’re addressing broad topics that wouldn’t normally come up in your research.  And sometimes, as you learn more about these topics that are only vaguely related to what you’re currently studying, you come up with new research ideas.

* * *

The last self-serving reason for doing outreach is that it makes you feel cool. When you’re working with middle-school kids, you never feel like you have impostor syndrome. (The same does not hold true for me in academia!)

A local middle school is developing an experiment that will go up to the ISS in spring (assuming that the Antares disaster doesn’t mess up the schedule).  They asked a club I’m part of for help.  I went along because, hey, outreach.  And space.

They ended up being very happy to see me because there’s no real biology department on campus and I’m the closest thing you can find at MyU to a biologist–I know about agar, and nutrients, and designing experiments with living creatures, and things like that.

I love this project because it’s so much simpler than the stuff I do for school.  Don’t get me wrong–it still has lots of complexities, and the kids are going to be hard pressed to get all of the variables sorted out before launch.  But compared to what I do, it’s a piece of cake.  I can take in the information they give me, figure out what the concerns will be, come up with solutions, and help them figure out how to test which solutions will work best. At times when I’m struggling to see myself as a decent scientist, it’s nice to prove that my research skills are actually decent.

* * *

Bonus reason: the laughs.  The other day we were brainstorming how to test performance in microgravity.  I explained the science behind the “Vomit Comet,” trying to steer them towards the idea of dropping the stuff from heights.

One of the kids came up with a better solution.  “Let’s take it with us on The Tower of Doom at Elitch’s,” she suggested. Bwahahaha. Yeah, that would probably work.

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