Monday, May 14, 2012

Seeing Scientists

I'm at the Vision Sciences Society 2012 conference in Naples, Florida this week. The folks here are are interested in how the brain uses the eyes to see, and all the processes that go with seeing. There have been some really inspired talks and poster presentations, and there's a very juicy sense of both collaboration and competition.

Along with that, I've enjoyed noticing is the broad range of personalities that choose to go into science. Here's a photo of a few them. It's a bit blurry, but even from this photo it should be clear that scientists are not always robotic and drab. As a favorite mentor of mine once said, "There are as many ways to be a scientist as there are to be a human being."

The weird thing about the culture of science is that sometimes it feels like there's an expectation that we are all supposed to be robotic and drab. In other words, we can get tricked into feeling like we are supposed to be perfect. I definitely fall for this sometimes. If someone catches me making a mistake -- especially an intellectual one (not so much a social one, that happens too often among us scientists) -- I feel ashamed.

I was feeling that way yesterday, after a third long day of discussions with other scientists, during which I had failed to follow some of their ideas and/or I made false assumptions about their approaches. That evening, I was preparing to give a talk about some of my auditory-visual cognition work. About half an hour before the session, I met the moderator, Maggie Shiffrar. She's one of several strong and authentic women in science whose mere existence, from afar and without knowing it, has brought me through difficult times.

As delighted as I was to meet Dr. Shiffrar, I was too nervous to talk at length. But a bit later while I tested my laptop, I overheard her talking to the first speaker. He had a difficult name to pronounce, and I heard her tell him that he was free to call her "Dr. Shitfrar" if she messed up his name when she introduced him.

I think that interchange -- her acknowledgement of her own humanity and her willingness to be teased for it -- allowed me to relax and enjoy giving my talk, even when I made several mistakes.

So here's to my favorite thing about science: the scientists ourselves and our adorable, inevitably failing struggle not to be human. It's a struggle that's even more inspiring when it's out in the open for everyone to see.

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