”You don’t look like a scientist” – a colleague said to me once, after I decided to come to work dressed a bit more unconventionally. I thought it was high praise, and one of the best compliments a scientist, in fact, can get. The same evening, a drunk shouted at me on the street: ”Who do you think you are, Greta Garbo?”; so, you get the image. I was wearing a floppy hat and a trench coat (!).
Is that really that odd? Sadly, most people still perceive scientists in a traditional, borderline discriminatory way – there’s even an official term for it: mad scientist. I wrote about it briefly already: glasses, lab coat, bunch of pens, and some sad prop, like a cane!, to justify the fact that (s)he dedicated her/his life to one thing, and one thing only. In addition, mad scientist is almost always male. One of my favorite TV shows, satire 30 Rock, even joked about it, calling ”female scientist” an oxymoron, together with such terms as ”liberal government” 😀
The truth is, most people who do research like to dress casually and practically: our work is often an equal mix of physical activities and sedentary labor, and one needs to be prepared for the unexpected. 30 Rock mocked that too, describing hallmarks of creative jobs to be ”work sneakers and left–handedness” 😀
One of today’s biggest biotech companies, Life Technologies, recently promoted the fact that every researcher actually has a lot of cool skills and abilities, and based on a Facebook campaign, presented the so-called Superheroes of the lab. Being a movie nerd, I was very amused by this, and even tried to figure out which one describes myself the best… but then I gave up. Why? Because, let’s face it, these are just some superhero-looking people with geeky names and superpowers, obviously drawn by someone who knows nothing about lab (but sure has some sweet talent!). I sat down and drew my own superhero: let’s call her Dr Multitask. Pipette guns, protective gear, timer… that’s more like it!
But do not despair: many comic book superheroes are also researchers with a PhD! After finally watching the latest installment of X-Men, I thought to myself: OK, all of these guys are mutants, but how many of them actually got serious and explored it properly? First, of course, Prof. X, or Dr Charles Xavier, the founder of School for Gifted Youngsters. Then, his good friend and ally, Dr Hank McCoy, a.k.a. Beast. Their associate Dr Moira MacTaggert, not a mutant herself, is described by Wikipedia as a ”geneticist and expert in mutant affairs”. Wow! I want to be that when I grow up! The genetic concept behind the X-Men, a.k.a. Mutants or Homo sapiens superior, is based on rather random yet almost limitless powers of the so-called X-Gene. Without going too deeply into whether it is an X- or autosome-linked, epigenetically silenced, dominant or recessive gene, apart from all its silliness, X-Gene is an interesting mental exercise. Provided a whole new set of environmental changes (especially those of unexplained/alien origin), human DNA has a potential to express some hidden properties, and the idea that the process may be strictly individual (=almost each and every X-(wo)man has unique set of superpowers) is even more exciting. I may return to this in some of my future posts, because it will require much more research and imagination 🙂 [In addition to X-Men, there’s Dr Bruce Banner, a.k.a. The Hulk, Dr Jon Osterman, a.k.a. Dr Manhattan (Watchmen), and Dr Otto Gunther Octavius, a.k.a. Dr Ock (Spider-Man)]
The best thing about X-Men is that they can be perceived as a critique of modern society, where everything different is judged and feared. As long as we remain human as we are, everything that is considered as biology-defying or ”unconventional” will also remain odd and not ”normal”. Every society or community built upon certain ”norms” or ”standards” is prone to judge those who shake them; I guess my Greta Garbo outfit qualifies as precisely that, in a researcher environment. Then again, creative surroundings are more susceptible to respect and accept the outliers and the misfits, which can in turn make them even more creative and progressive.
At this point, I should be drawing parallels between the X-Men and today’s real minority groups, an issue that challenges the core of modern politics. But for now, let’s step aside and, like in the case of X-gene, consider more research on the topic. Instead, let’s try this: the next time you see someone your brain registers as ”weird”, ”strange” or ”not normal”, also step aside for a while and ask yourself ”why?”
To be continued…