Science in context – my context

One of the first year units that QUT has introduced in the new Bachelor of Science program is SEB101 – Science in Context. The subject aims to impress upon students the idea that science happens as part of a larger community and that how and why research is conducted relies on interactions with that community.

I received an email last week from a former SEB113 student of mine, Kathryn Turner, asking if she could interview me for the SEB101 Portfolio about the work I do as research scientist. Kathryn and I organised to sit down and have a chat for this afternoon to discuss what I do, what relevance it has to the community and how the community sees the work we do.

We spent most of our fifteen minutes talking about the UPTECH project and how my work, statistical analysis for the various papers, is part of a large, interdisciplinary project that allows me to work with many different sources of data and do different analyses. I mentioned that I initially studied mathematical modelling, focussing on computational fluid dynamics, and that I got involved in this research project because my primary supervisor (Professor Lidia Morawska) lectured an elective that I took in my undergrad (Global Energy Balance and Climate Change). I went to have a chat with her after I’d finished Honours about what sort of PhD projects she might have available (writing about this now, it feels like a lifetime ago; it was only 2008) and she was in the process of planning UPTECH and recruiting people. I was offered the chance to apply cool mathematical techniques to an interesting environmental health problem based that had links to transport planning. Sign me up!

We also talked about the ethics side of the project, involving doing health diagnostic measurements with students, taking a health history and demographics survey home, etc. and how QUT makes sure we’re very careful with this sort of thing. I’m glad I didn’t have to do the ethics application for the project.

Kathryn asked what the schools thought about having scientists come in and work with the kids. From what I understand, the schools were quite accepting and the kids were excited about the prospect of being involved with the personal sampling aspect; we also handed out badges that say “I’m doing SCIENCE” to the kids who were part of the study.

On a bit of a tangent, and we didn’t discuss this, I think it’s good to have scientists seen as being regular people who have decided to pursue science and that the science isn’t just lab work. FermiLab did a really interesting project a few years ago about kids’ perceptions of scientists. They talked to some seventh graders and got them to describe and draw what they thought a scientist was before and after meeting a group of physicists who worked at the lab. The UPTECH members who went to the schools to do the measurements represent a very multicultural group, including (but not limited to) people of Iranian, Chinese, Egyptian, Malaysian, and Northern and Eastern European descent, and included both men and women. I hope that one of the outcomes of having such a diverse group involved with the field work for the project was that the students saw that scientists aren’t all old, white men with frizzy, greying hair, a lab coat and glasses.

After we’d wrapped up the interview, Kathryn said it was interesting to learn a bit more about the research career of a lecturer and seemed quite interested in the various projects that I get to work on. For my part, I found it a really interesting interview because I don’t often get asked about the ethical and community implications of my work. While I do spend my days sitting in front of a computer running statistical analyses, I am actually a research scientist who relies on the support of the public both through my funding and through social acceptance that looking at the health impact of air quality is valuable.

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