You’re going to have to do it at some point. Maybe it’s a dinner party, a family get-together, or maybe you’re stuck on a plane next to that guy who insists on asking you a stream of questions. But you’re going to have to explain that you’re a scientist, and what that means. There are good ways to do that. And then there are ‘less good’ ways to do that.


1. “So, what do you do?”


Good: “I’m a scientist – a biologist actually. I work in a lab at a university and I’m essentially trying to understand the finer points of how cells work.”


Bad: “I’m a scientist. Don’t worry, you won’t understand, but let me say right now: no I’m not curing diseases or anything like that, so don’t ask.”


2. “How come you don’t spend all your time curing human disease?”


Good: “Well it’s a bit more complicated than that. In a lot of cases, we don’t fully understand how some processes in biology function normally. We need to figure that out before we can understand what’s broken and how to fix it.”


Bad:Eurgh. What did I literally just say? Why is everyone obsessed with human diseases? That’s a tiny part of science, you know? I’m interested in the fundamentals of how things work! Complex stuff.”


3. “What do you actually do all day?”


Good: “A good part of my day is spent at the laboratory bench, running experiments. But then I also have to plan out additional experiments, analyze previous experiments, write up my results, and keep up with the literature. It’s a mix of practical and theory work.”


Bad: “Pipetting. Waiting for stuff. More pipetting.”


4. “Right. Okay. So, my friend has this really nasty skin rash, it’s right on her—”


Good: “Oh I’m not a doctor! I didn’t do medicine. Sorry. I’m a biologist, but I haven’t covered human medicine or anything. You’d have to get her to speak to her GP. Sorry.”


Bad: “WHOAH STOP! Come on. Sheesh. I’m not your doctor. I said I was a biologist, not your local dermatologist. Wow. But, erm, out of interest, where is this rash?”


5. “But isn’t science just science?”


Good: “No, not really. You see the ‘main’ three disciplines, biology, chemistry, and physics, are all very different. Even within biology there are a lot of different specializations, like neurobiology, genetics, developmental biology, etc. While they’re all related, we tend to specialize in one. I have a general knowledge of the other areas, but I’m principally a cell biologist and so I couldn’t answer technical questions from different disciplines without first doing a bit of reading – and even then it’d be best to speak to an expert in that field.”


Bad: “Totally. We all have a super advanced understanding of every scientific field. No. Of course it’s not.”


6. “Every time I read the news, it seems you scientists are changing your mind about how things work. What’s up with that?”


Good: “Firstly, don’t believe everything you see in the news. Quite often it fails to accurately represent the science that’s been done. This is often just poor journalism. But more importantly, that’s kind of how science progresses: we challenge existing ideas, and if the new idea – or theory – has sufficient evidence, it replaces the old one. Like how we now understand the real dangers of smoking, or excessive sun bathing, or that the Sun doesn’t actually orbit the Earth.”


Bad: “Do you believe everything you read in the paper? Pretty much all of that’s garbage anyway. Maybe you could try doing some of your own research into a subject before criticizing all scientists. I mean, you don’t still think the Sun’s pulled across the sky by some deity in a fiery chariot anymore, do you? No. That’s called progress.”


7. “So everything’s just a theory? You don’t actually know anything?”


Good: “Technically, yes, everything is just a theory. But some theories have huge bodies of supporting evidence. Look at electricity for example. We have a theory of how it works and we trust that enough to use in every electrical device. We also have theories of how the body works that are detailed enough to let us develop medicine to keeps millions of people healthy.”


Bad: “How about we get up on the table, jump around, and see just how much of a ‘theory’ gravity is?”



What sort of questions have you had to deal with? And more importantly, did you take the good or bad approach to answering?!