In the cult classic movie “High School Musical,” star basketball player Troy Bolton’s dad and coach lectures him for missing practice for the high school musical. “You’re a playmaker, Troy, not a singer,” Coach Bolton said. Troy responded, “Did you ever think maybe I could be both?”
Although I haven’t been taunted by my teammates for singing showtunes, I can relate to Troy taking issue with being forced into a box. People have asked me whether I consider myself a scientist or a journalist, and I’m tempted to respond with his iconic line. After all, what initially drew me to science journalism was the bridging of two disciplines that I was equally interested in but that seemed incompatible for most of my education.
While I imagine that other writers with a science background were attracted to the career for similar reasons, I’ve noticed that many of their Twitter bios read “molecular biologist turned journalist,” their professional identity evolving over time with their physical workplace and daily tasks. Personally, I didn’t feel the need to abandon my claim to being a scientist when I left the lab. I am still a PhD-trained chemist, which equipped me with knowledge and skills that are critical to my work at Drug Discovery News.
Even for scientists who remain active in research, the definition of scientific duties seems to be limited to running experiments and preparing manuscripts. While I spent downtime during my PhD program writing stories about my research for the general public, I heard my colleagues discuss the activities they participated in “on the side.” These included tackling science projects with students in high-need communities, writing letters to inspire the next generation of scientists, giving presentations to enhance science literacy among the elderly, and teaching scientific concepts to incarcerated people.
These experiences were not recognized as part of our scientific training, did not fulfill any of the requirements to earn the degree, and were usually not documented in our PhD defenses or theses. (I’ll admit that I did sneak in an addendum with my published stories.) But we recognized that as scientists, we were uniquely qualified to serve as science communicators, educators, mentors, and advocates.
Many researchers partake in these roles outside of their technical job descriptions and should view these engagements not as separate from their work as scientists, but rather as natural extensions. “Scientist” is not a singular and exclusive title, but instead one that can spur many other identities that have an important influence on the state of science in society. It’s time that we take a Troy Bolton approach to what it means to be a scientist and embrace the “both,” “and,” and “all of the above.”