NEED TO ASK QUESTIONS
October 11, 2009
I received a request for an interview from Brian, a ninth-grader in Georgia,
whose biology class assignment was to interview a scientist. Several of
his questions are ones many people have, and some are especially applicable
to high school students who might be interested in a career in ecology.
These are some of his questions and my answers.
Q. Can you
please define science?
A. The basic definition of science is that it is knowledge. The term can
also refer to the system by which knowledge is acquired, as when scientists
state that they are "doing good science."
Q. Do you
use the scientific method, step by step, like we learn in school?
A. Sometimes, but science can be advanced in ways other than through hypotheses
and experiments. For example, landing on the moon and picking up moon
rocks was an important step in lunar science, even though no hypothesis
was required to go there, pick up rocks, and observe them. We know more
now than we did before the lunar landings.
Likewise, serendipitous natural history observations often increase our
knowledge about plants and animals even though no planning was involved.
The scientific method is a valuable tool and can extend observations to
the next level of understanding, but descriptive science based on chance
observations can also be valuable. Sometimes we do not know enough to
ask particular questions or form hypotheses, so descriptive and opportunistic
observations are first needed.
Q. What is
the most challenging obstacle you face as a scientist?
A. I imagine most scientists today would agree that the most challenging
obstacles are acquiring funding for basic scientific studies and dealing
with university and government bureaucracies, including such time-consuming
tasks as submitting applications to funding agencies, complying with regulatory
procedures, and filling out forms that do not relate directly to the science
Q. Does science interfere with your religious beliefs?
A. This should not be a problem for anyone who is open-minded about the
questions being asked. Religion and science can and do coexist. Galileo
serves as an excellent example of the importance of questioning religious
beliefs in the context of scientific study. In defiance of religious dogma
at the time, he stated that the earth revolved around the sun, not vice
versa. When objective scientific facts do not conform to particular religious
beliefs, we should question the latter, not the former.
Q. If I were
to follow in your footsteps what advice would you give me as a ninth-grade
A. I cannot claim to have done this flawlessly myself, but ideally you
should study hard and take all the language arts, mathematics, and science
courses you can. Make good grades in all of them.
Today, of course, a knowledge of computer science applications and other
technologies can be of great benefit for research. But an important part
of developing a life sciences career in natural history is to have a continuing
interest in the outdoors and all its inhabitants. That's where the excitement
will always be. But if you are going to study it and tell others about
what you have found, you should first be able to understand it at a scientific
Q. What do
you do when an experiment does not go as planned or has an unexpected
A. Start another experiment, based on the knowledge you have gained about
what went wrong with or what you discovered from the first experiment.
Q. In your
opinion, what are some advantages and disadvantages of being a scientist?
A. Probably for most people the advantage of being a scientist is being
able to pursue knowledge at your own pace and in your area of interest.
The disadvantages include not making as much money as classmates who went
into business, law, or medicine. Also, some scientists have positions
in which they do not have a lot of latitude about what they can study.
(These are usually the ones who make the most money.)
Q. What do you like most about being a scientist?
A. My favorite part is asking intriguing questions about the ecology and
behavior of animals--and sometimes being able to find the answers.
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