What makes a scientist?

When doing community outreach for science, you hear some amazingly intuitive questions. Normally these questions are from the inquisitive minds of five- or six-year olds, and are along the lines of how things work and why they work that way. While doing a demonstration on vortexes in tornadoes, one eight-year old little girl had other things on her mind. She looked me up and down as if sizing me up then said as judgmentally as she could, “You don’t look like a scientist.”Wow. I had on my normal cargo pants, department t-shirt, and work boots. Change the shirt up, and this is about what I wear to the field or working in my lab. If you looked anywhere on Purdue’s campus, you’d generally find the same dress and look going on. So, my curiosity piqued, I asked her, “What makes a scientist?”

According to this little girl, I should have frizzy hair and non-stylish glasses for starters. I was also missing a lab coat and goggles, and I dressed too normally. I asked a chemistry student from the nearby tent if I could borrow a lab coat and goggles really quick, put them on, and asked her if that was better. With a critical eye that only an eight-year old could have, she said, “Almost, but why do you still look normal?”

A half an hour later, and I had finally convinced this critical kid that scientists are normal people no matter how they are dressed, how well they can do their hair or make-up, and don’t always require a lab coat or goggles to do science. I even got her convinced that we can have families and hobbies like anyone else. This got me thinking though; what does the general public think science really is? Possibly more importantly, what do they, as well as we, think a scientist is?

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