Scientists are Human too

As I took a painkiller for a headache with my breakfast the other day, in advance of a first year lecture to 350 undergraduates, I was reminded of the words from the Yeoman of the Guard sung by the mournful jester, Jack Point:

Though your head it may rack with a bilious attack,
And your senses with toothache you’re losing,
Don’t be mopy and flat — they don’t fine you for that
If you’re properly quaint and amusing!
Though your wife ran away with a soldier that day,
And took with her your trifle of money;
Bless your heart, they don’t mind —
They’re exceedingly kind —
They don’t blame you — as long as you’re funny!

OK, the students don’t really want you to be funny, but they will complain if you are ‘mopy and flat’ and regardless of your state of health you have to get out there and deliver, keep them awake if not precisely entertained (though a good demo or two may even get some sign of appreciation).

As professionals we have to perform in our lectures under just about any circumstances; I even lectured when I had chickenpox caught from my children. In that case I did give the students the option of moving a few rows (even further) back in the lecture theatre if they wished, having taken medical advice as to how infectious I was likely to be.  I have only once in my entire career dropped out of a lecture at the last moment, when essentially blind with the aura of classic migraine, making it impossible to see my notes or write on the overhead projector legibly (this predated Powerpoint).  However, away from the lecture theatre we should be permitted to be human, to have factors that may weigh heavily on us which temporarily distract us from our normal even-tempered and creative state.  Despite being scientists we still have families and personal circumstances that may get in the way of the high standard of ‘service’ we expect to be able to supply: to deliver, for instance, a rapid turn around on thesis chapters for our research students or to meet the deadline on refereeing imposed by journals.  However, at times life (or worse, death) catches up with us and we should not feel obliged to try to soldier on without disclosing the pertinent facts to our colleagues.

A friend of mine recently wrote to me

I have to say, I think if more successful professors actually took on and faced up to family responsibilities, the academic world would be a much nicer place! We’re all humans first and foremost! Science can only ever be second to that, logically, though many of my colleagues have a damn good try at defeating that basic fact.

We should not forget our humanity, nor should we feel unable to explain to those we are letting down why we are being suddenly uncharacteristically ‘mopy and flat’ or indeed downright unreliable. And as supervisors of others, indeed as colleagues of others, we should likewise be aware of their own non-work-related pressures and be supportive. Ill health may strike any of us, or other members of our family. I am of the age where that horrid phrase ‘elder care’ becomes a reality, and I know many of my contemporaries who are having to face up to the associated anxiety combined with the need to make difficult decisions. For younger colleagues it may be teenage angst in their children that is keeping them awake, or the perennial crying baby that renders them tired and grumpy. All these things pass with time, but the creativity and ability to contribute to the life of the laboratory will return  – unless a hostile environment drives people prematurely out.

So next time you feel like tearing a strip off a colleague for not delivering  that report you were expecting, or chastising a student for failing to turn up to an important meeting with an industrial sponsor, check out the underlying reason before going on the attack. Once you have established the errant student merely had one hell of a hangover then it’s time to let loose, but if instead you find their grandfather has been rushed to hospital hold your fire. And go on holding fire until such time as that student has been able to re-establish internal equilibrium. And students, if your supervisor suddenly starts behaving as a zombie, don’t take it personally but try to work out if their baby is teething, their elderly mother has just had a stroke and been rushed into hospital or their wife has ‘run off with a soldier that day’. One of the more galling, if totally trivial examples of a lack of support in my own personal experience was when I told the senior examiner one year that I would not be able to fulfill all my examining duties because I was pregnant. His response sticks in my mind as just a trifle unsympathetic, ‘not again’ he said, as if I’d made a habit of being unreliable due to the vast number of my progeny (at that point they still numbered <2).  In some senses that remark didn’t matter, but it was hardly supportive or encouraging.

The non-scientist out there may have a vision of us all as passionless machine-like lunatics, based on their vague ideas about Dr Frankenstein. We should know better that we are human and allow ourselves and those around us just occasionally to step back and catch breath as circumstances require.

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10 Responses to Scientists are Human too

  1. Steve Caplan says:


    Well said. I do, however, think that “professionalism” is a learned trait, and that students in particular need to realize that work in a science lab is not equivalent to summer camp. While I encourage students who are ill to go home and rest, and those with (unfortunately) family issues to “be human”, I find myself also having to remind them that they are like professional athletes or musicians, and need to be able to function under “normal stress situations”, as you describe. To me it seems that while some students display inherent professional behavior, others need to understand that the freedom of academia is not an excuse for laziness.

  2. cromercrox says:

    I think all the best scientists are the human ones.

  3. KristiV says:

    Beautiful post, Athene. One of my colleagues teaches several courses to allied health professions (e.g. dental hygiene) students, who are often accepted to such programs right out of high school. He said that initially he had trouble communicating with the students, and that they were intimidated by him; he realized that many of them had never encountered anyone with a PhD before, and that they might have thought he was some sort of freak. So he started inserting pictures of, and stories about, his children and his pets – the escape artist tortoise, the goth foibles of one of his daughters, etc. – and that broke the ice. He told me about this strategy because I’d been puzzled by a few of the dental students in our gross anatomy course, who’d said to me in lab one day “We know that you always help us with our dissections and give us embryology review sessions, but we don’t know anything about you, Dr. V.” My colleague told me that they just wanted to know about my pets, relatives (I don’t have kids), etc., i.e. they wanted to know about me as a human. 😀

  4. Steve – I take professionalism as the default trait – in students and colleagues alike – and I quite agree with you. You can be sure when the errant student I mention failed to turn up to an important meeting with their industrial sponsor because they really did have a monster hangover, I absolutely told them what I thought about them and their lack of professionalism. They never did it again.

    @cromercrox – I guess it depends what you mean by ‘best’. I can think of very successful scientists who barely fit the category (not those I choose to work with). For instance, there was the case of the US professor who boasted he liked to set 2 PhD students onto the same project to see which one ‘won’, never mind what it did to the unsuccessful one. If by ‘best’ you mean those who combine humanity with excellent science, I’m with you, but promotion committees don’t tend to look at humanity as a category so virtue may have to be its own reward.

    KristiV, interesting point about how much to ‘self-disclose’. Lecturing to 300+ students it would feel really odd to give much personal away, but in smaller groups and of course with research students etc I’m quite willing to talk about things closer to home. When my children were small of course I talked about them to my PhD students – they were the babysitters (paid of course)!

  5. Heather says:

    This is exactly why my first blog, long ago, was called “Humans in Science” – I felt that disconnect between my own rather ordinary, human, family role, and that perceived by non-scientists as soon as they learned I was a Ph.D.

    I agree that the self-disclosure thing is a double-edged sword; I’d probably plead a little necessary distance in a lecture hall setting, but in my own lab the students are more than aware of my family obligations and opinions about everything under the sun. Perhaps to their discomfiture; I hope they would tell me. Actually, one did.

    • Heather, I must find your blog…you don’t give a link! Personally I don’t find a disconnect in general (introductions at seasonal parties apart, when identifying myself as a physicist, as I discussed previously) between the different parts of my life, but I definitely put up boundaries in front of a lecture theatre full of students. Having said that, I did ‘disclose’ something this week quite deliberately about my life beyond the university to the students by way of an apology. Not the sort of apology this post really refers to, but the fact that I was not responding to their email queries (eg about my mistakes in the handout) because I had been distracted by the launch of the Royal Society’s Education Committee report on Transition to Higher Education and doing associated radio interviews. These students, I felt, really ought to care that we were proposing a reform of A levels and wanting the government to consider an ‘A level baccalaureate’. I think I got through to them – one, when I did finally respond to his query, replied wishing me good luck with A level reform.

  6. astrologerthe says:

    “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”, some live in an inhuman world. It could be worse, who will get the chop when an axe falls? Unfortunately discrimination is rife that includes the value of an excuse, can depend who you are.
    Personally, I am more of a sympathetic type, 2nd chance, tolerant, etc, but prefer to be prepared, organised for a particular outcome, “out of the office” auto e-mail, it is the unexpected or uncertainty that I find more difficult to deal with, expect a student not to turn up, lack of incentive or childish.
    Good luck with the A level reform, which education system do you prefer “A” levels or “Highers” within the UK?

  7. led gu10 says:

    If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”, some live in an inhuman world. It could be worse, who will get the chop when an axe falls?

  8. I see no need to encourage academia to be an inhuman world. It would be nice if @cromercrox was always right and the best scientists were the human ones.

  9. In answer to “Who will get the chop first when the axe falls”, in Univ science Depts. I suspect it will be those without significant research funding… like me.

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