Why I Write about my Work as a Scientist

adapted from the original published on christinajwilliamson.wordpress.com

When I first started working in scientific research I was surprised by how exciting and often glamorous it felt. From the thrill of being around ground-breaking discoveries at CERN, to taking measurements on remote stations on the tops of mountains, to working with NOAA and NASA and traveling round the world in a flying lab.

I certainly hadn’t expected this. As an undergrad in physics, people would often ask me if I wanted to go into research, and I said no because I didn’t want to “live in a lab”. I had pre-conceived idea that I’d be spending all day every day in a windowless laboratory without much social interaction. This could not be further from the truth, so I write about it to show others how exciting a career in scientific research can be.

The cupola on the Jungfraujoch high alpine research station in Switzerland, where I did a campaign during my doctoral studies (credit: Christopher Hoyle.)

Rosalind Franklin once said “Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated” and I strongly agree with this. Scientific literacy is important for everyone in today’s world. Without it we cannot make informed decisions that affect out health, well-being and impact on the planet. At a fundamental level, our ability to think logically and scientifically about the decisions we make day to day directly is important for us individually and as a society.

And yet, it is very common and acceptable in today’s society for intelligent, otherwise successful adults to claim that they’re “not mathematically minded” or that science doesn’t interest them. I don’t blame them for this, maths can be challenging at school, and science lessons can sometimes seem either dull or incomprehensible (although there are many incredible maths and science teacher out there) and often we give up, accepting too early the notion that our brains can’t cope with maths and science and we’re simply better of focussing our attention elsewhere. I want to draw people who define themselves as not scientifically inclined back into connecting with science. I’m convinced that once they see how beautiful and exciting it is, and allow their brains to follow the logical arguments that explain what’s happen in a relaxed, noncritical setting, they will find it as interesting as I do. I’m not advocating that everyone quit their own vocations and retrain as scientists, just that science should take its rightful place in our culture as something everyone can engage with, enjoy and understand to a reasonable level.

Boarding the NASA DC-8 at the start of the ATom mission to map the global distribution of greenhouses gases, reactive gases and aerosol (credit: Agnieszka Kupc).

Another reason I write about my science is to connect with other scientists. I’m interested to know what other’s are researching and why it’s important to them. I find it useful to hear about the road-blocks they come up against, and how they over come them. In moving around the world as a scientist I’ve found a community in which I feel very happy and at home, I have found “my tribe” as people like to say. I first felt this as a summer student at CERN where I formed some of the strongest friendships of my life so far. Then, after about a year of working towards my PhD, I remember walking into the foyer at a conference and thinking “wow, I know about half the people in this room and can’t wait to catch up with them, and the other half is full of people who’s work I admire and I want to get to know”. Arriving at NOAA for my current position I was immediately introduced to a diverse, young group of scientists from around the world who had also moved here for the same reasons. We work together, but also get together in our free time to hike, ski and just go for beers. I have formed very genuine and happy friendships through my work. Blogging and talking about my work on social media allows me to extend my network beyond my direct field of research and physical location.

A typical lunch time at CERN during my summer internship there in 2010 (credit: Daniel Heinrich).

There is also a surprising bonus to blogging and tweeting about my work that I had not anticipated. While my work, and especially the field campaigns I go on, are exciting and I really love doing them, there are always going to be times when it feels tough. Whether that’s because I have to get up at 4am for pre-flight for a mission, or because I’ve spent a whole week trying to fix leaks in my instrument and there’s a stubborn one I still can’t find or whatever, seeing other people get excited about my work reminds me of why I do it in the first place, and this always makes the hard bit easier. So if you’re reading this, let me take the opportunity to say thank you for that. I appreciate you being here.

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