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Real Science

What it takes to become a scientist

Michael Rosenthal

(4/2015) What is it that makes a student decide to be a scientist? What is it that makes a student enjoy science enough to be successful at it? What makes a student understand science well enough to make intelligent evaluations and decisions about how science affects oneís life? All of these questions have the same answer, which is a combination of individual interest and level of scientific talent, fueled by stimulating teaching at home and in school. I never had much special stimulation in science in my first eleven years of public school education. My science education was competent, and I did well at it, but it was the wonderful stimulation I received in my senior year chemistry class from Mr. Gillespie that made me want to become a scientist.

I recently attended the Science Fair at Mother Seton School in Emmitsburg. I counted 79 presentations, consisting of three-section stand-up cards upon which the nature of the experiment was explained, and often some of the experimental apparatus. Each experiment consisted of a hypothesis, a procedure, the materials used, data obtained, and the conclusion reached. There was often an accompanying journal in which the details of the experiment were spelled out. This presentation model is the same procedure that a college student or a scientist would use in sharing a solution to a scientific problem, - very professional indeed!

What makes this science fair so very special is the fact that the students are mostly 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, with one 2nd grader, seven 3rd graders and four 4th graders also presenting. The projects included forays into human and animal behavior, food chemistry, physics experiments, and biology studies. Here are a few of the topics explored:

Can music lower blood pressure? What can I do to make flowers last longer? Does a mouse rely more on its sense of smell or sight? Seeing different images in optical illusions; is it a boy or girl thing? Do people of different ages read facial expressions better than others? How far can sparks jump? Does the age of a dog affect the dogís willingness to try a new trick? Can plants that react to mechanical stimuli be anaesthetized with Lidocaine?

This Science Fair is the most sophisticated science presentation that I have ever seen with this age group. I fully expect that some students will decide to follow a career in science as its result.

In my many years of teaching college chemistry, I have taught both science majors and non-science majors across the whole college curriculum, including potentially publishable undergraduate research. In my opinion the most important course is Chemistry 101-102, the first two courses in the curriculum, usually taken by college freshmen or sophomores. Over my fifty years or so of teaching, this course is the moment of truth for beginning college students who seek careers in science, engineering, or in the medical sciences. The results of this course tell an important story: whether the student is a logical, quantitative thinker. But just as important is whether the student enjoys the study of science. I always have told my students that you have to find a path toward a career that is defined by an activity that you enjoy and in which you have talent, and that both components are equally critical. It is not enough to seek a career in medicine simply because that is what your parents want or just because you want the prestige. And a career in research chemistry will not be possible for a person who is not a logical and quantitative thinker.

Every science student does not start out as a star. A lot has to do with her or his level of preparation, the study habits that have been developed, whether the student is a logical and quantitative thinker, and how hard he or she is willing to work. There are majors easier than chemistry!

At this point I have to make a pitch for small liberal arts and sciences colleges or for honors programs in large universities. I believe that one cannot learn science well in a lecture section of 300 students. One needs the opportunity for discourse, both with the instructor and with fellow students. It is also important, I feel, for the instructor to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of individual students and to help them grow in their individual ways. There are students whom I recognize are likely MDs or PhDs after knowing them only a few weeks, and others that I know are unlikely to finish the science major successfully no matter how hard they try. But every student deserves the chance and the support to make the effort to grow and succeed, and that is much harder to do at the large, impersonal university, where much of the introductory science teaching is done by bachelor degree teaching assistants. I was one of those TAs in my graduate school days at the University of Illinois. And that is why I chose to seek a small liberal arts college for my teaching career.

My second topic this month is a continuation of our discussion of pseudo science. The world is filled with such nonsense, and letís talk about one example.

Have you ever passed through a shopping mall and seen a kiosk selling magnetic bracelets? The sellers claim that these bracelets reduce various kinds of pain (arthritis, strained muscles, tension pain) by projecting magnetic fields into the body. Well, Iím sorry to tell you that the magnetic field in such a bracelet is not strong enough to even penetrate the skin. The good news is that they wonít hurt you (as long as you donít swallow the magnets!), but they do no good either. I have even seen magnetic dog collars offered to help dogs reduce their pain!

This is a good moment to introduce the Placebo Effect. This effect is operative when a person believes that a remedy will work. Some relief may be temporarily found as the brain is fooled into thinking the problem is being taken care of. However, disease will not be cured, relief will be temporary, and worst of all, the phony remedy deters the individual from seeking medical treatment that scientifically seeks to remedy the problem.

We will talk more about specific applications of pseudoscience in future columns, and if you have any specific subjects that youíd like me to address, please let me know. Meanwhile, I have an excellent book to recommend to you on the subject. Voodoo Science, The Road from Foolishness to Fraud, by Robert Park is a wonderful foray into the world of pseudoscience. Dr. Park, whom I know personally, is a retired Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland Ė College Park. The book was published by Oxford University Press in 2000.

Michael is former chemistry professor at Mount. St. Marys

Read other articles by Michael Rosenthal