My Scientific Personality

What makes one scientist different from another? When I participated in I’m A Scientist, an online engagement event with schools, the students’ questions made me think hard about the kind of science I do…

This (from whalefish) was one of my favourite questions. I am pasting it here because it was one that really made me think about what makes me tick as a scientist. It’s something that I keep coming back to. Any scientists reading this should consider getting involved in IAS, as it is a really enriching experience, and not just for the students.

What sorts of science do you like doing? x

Hi Whalefish – there are lots of different ways to answer this, and I’ve already tried some of the others (look at my profile for an idea of the topics I’m interested in, and the methods I use). I’m going to take a different approach here and try to give you an idea of my “scientific personality”.

I like my work to include:
i) something that hasn’t been tried before – some people do lots of experiments using similar methods gradually tweaking them; I tend to try and make up something entirely new.
ii) some theoretical content – for example, I try to work out a simple model that will explain my results or predict the results of a new experiment, not just in general terms, but if possible in terms of numbers that I expect to see in the results.
iii) I am interested in the big picture
iv) I like to try and reconcile apparently contradictory ideas
v) I prefer a simple explanation to a complicated one
vi) I tend to think that things that seem to belong in different categories might actually lie on a continuum
vii) I like coming up with new ideas by putting very different concepts together (perhaps applying ideas taken from one subject to a quite different topic)

You might think all these things sound great, but there’s a lot to be said for the opposite approach in most of these cases, and in fact my “scientific personality” isn’t ideal for my career – most successful scientists are more methodical and focused and less woolly and imaginative. I’ve tried but I can’t change who I am, and the limited successes I’ve had in science have generally been related to the approach I take. I think we need a bit of both, ends of this spectrum, and as they rarely occur in an individual, the best way to do good science is to put people with different approaches together in teams.

BTW Can you see how the last sentence fits with the “personality traits” I described above – at least I have insight!

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