Most of my friends are not scientists. Most of my friends, in fact, have managed to turn altruism into a career choice rather than some fancy-sounding virtue. This always leads to what I perceive as lopsided conversations, most recently reenacted over the Christmas holiday. “So, how’s everything at the AIDS clinic / special needs school / international aid charity / homeless welfare center? (All real examples.) Oh yeah, my oysters are doing fine, denitrifying away, thanks for asking.” Now, I emphatically do not think that science is unimportant. I take a lot of pride in my research and have the utmost respect for my colleagues here at UNC and the broader scientific community. As climate change has illustrated, human well-being is directly linked to scientific understanding, and to become lax on the latter has grave consequences for the former.
That’s the big picture, but when faced with specific instances of inequality or hardship, it can be tough, at least for me, to feel as though your work matters. Last MLK Day, I particularly struggled with the end of my post about environmental justice issues, when I tried to think of ways for scientists to apply their work. It felt a bit like cheating to suggest the usual- volunteer! outreach!- even though I know from experience that those are completely worthwhile. When confronted with the kind of stories I hear from my non-science friends though, stories about people who are trying to break out of the homeless cycle or get through 7th grade with an incarcerated parent, my corner of science suddenly feels very small. Why am I in grad school when there are Big Problems out there?
It’s a dangerous way to think, actually, because implicit in that question is the assumption that I could somehow fix those Big Problems. Spoiler: I can’t. And neither can my friends: none of them would suggest that inequality will be a thing of the past now that they’re on the scene. This Martin Luther King Day, I’m thinking that it’s perfectly okay if science grad students feel a little lost when thinking about their work in a broader social context, because that’s when they’ll start talking, and that might be the best hope we have. It’s critical that we don’t shy away from discussing uncomfortable issues, whether with scientists or people in other fields, because that ultimately fosters a deeper sense of purpose and connection. These don’t need to be drawn-out philosophical inquiries- haven’t you had some of the most meaningful conversations over cups of coffee? Whatever the context, it’s high time to change the conversation from safe small talk about grant applications and data. We need people in all sorts of fields, because the world wouldn’t work any better if we were all social workers, but those career choices can’t and shouldn’t prevent us from leveling with one another more honestly. As you consider bigger questions this MLK Day, my best suggestion is, please don’t keep them to yourself, because altruism really is contagious.
[To join the virtual conversation, also check out this insightful article from the Urban Ecology Center blog. If you live in Milwaukee and haven’t checked out the UEC, definitely do- it’s an amazing community and outdoors resource!]