Parental Science Geeks, Beware!

For many of us career scientists, our work–our profession–is really a way of life more than a job. So it is doubly so–perhaps exponentially so–when in a family both parents are science geeks scientists.

Scientists have long been portrayed as geeky and odd in the media. More recently, they have been portrayed on Occam’s Typewriter in geeky fashion eyeware.

In geeky science families, dinner time can sometimes become a sounding ground for new ideas, and other science-related topics. How many of us parents have ever stopped to reflect how our children feel about this?

Normal families discuss recent events, the news, culture, the arts and sports at mealtimes. And of course, nutrition; after all, we are all certified nutritionists. But what do scientist families discuss?

Budding actress and cartoonist M.C. has provided us with some insight into the situation:

It’s time for revenge on the nerd-geek-parental scientists…

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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40 Responses to Parental Science Geeks, Beware!

  1. ricardipus says:

    Both of my parents are physicists. Do I win a prize? Even a sympathy one?

    • I’m another with a physicist father (turned biophysicist, as some will remember from this post and the comments under it, or this one). But my mother is an arts grad – history teacher turned photographer and art gallery runner, inter alia. So we are a “split family”. My younger brother is an architect. We’ve often joked that if I had followed a more fitting path than scientific academia – something like science journalism or editing – then we would both have ended up somewhere in between arts and sciences.

      My better half is a doctor, which is in many ways a kind of science-arts hybrid profession, so we are carrying on the “combination” tradition into the next generation. We’ve been known to discuss medicine at the dinner table, though rarely science. But mostly we don’t get to discuss anything, as the noise of the children yelling drowns it out.

      • Steve Caplan says:

        Austin–just saw this post of yours now–Ada Yonath was a post-doc in your father’s lab! Fascinating! He must be really proud of the people he trained!

        • Definitely, Steve. I think a lot of scientists (especially as they get further along the career path) come to feel that the people they trained form a big part of their overall “contribution”. I know I feel like that, (even though I’ve not trained that many people!!), as I wrote a bit in a comment on David Kroll’s blog recently.

          My dad certainly was/is proud of the many people he’s helped train and/or mentor over his half century plus in the business. Of course, one interesting thing is the serendipitous/random way they had often ended up in the lab..! Maybe I should write something about that… as, in these days of people being told early on to “plan every move”, we are led to believe chance should play no element. I know Athene D has written about this “random factor” too.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Did they talk in waves or particles?

  2. The link takes me to a private Flickr photo that I don’t have permission to view

    Both my parents are (retired) language teachers – French and Spanish for my mum, French and German for my dad – and my sister took language A levels and then a degree in French and Italian. They’d often speak in foreign languages to each other at dinner, presumably (or, rather, hopefully) without realising that they were doing it, and thereby excluding me from the conversation! (I had to reluctantly drop French at 16 in order to take science A levels).

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    OOPS! First time using FLICKR–so as not to get RPG in attack mode about large files…

    The cartoon is now OPEN-TO-PUBLIC…

  4. Stephen says:

    The conversation around our dinner table is invariably nerdy… 😉

  5. Comment waiting in your moderation queue, Steve.

    PS On a completely different subject, found a chess forum where some obliging guy looked up my old (1970s) ratings for me. They’re a little higher than I remembered – probably means I shouldn’t start playing again, as the contrast between then and now will be too depressing

    • Steve Caplan says:


      I did approve that, but for some reason it was censored…

      With regard to chess–the more I play, the lower my rating goes. I wonder if it’s like Twitter–the less I Tweet, the more people follow me….

  6. KristiV says:

    My father is a biochemist, and my mother is a child development specialist (e.g. hospital play therapy department). My sister is a computer science/maths/stats geek. I am much more reserved than the rest of my family, so I speculate that I was raised in a Skinner box as an experimental part of my mother’s degree requirements. She vehemently denies this.

    In the second grade, we were once instructed to draw pictures of people in different jobs. I drew a person in a lab coat, holding a rat and a test tube, and proclaimed that he was a biochemist. My teacher said “That’s not a real job, there’s no such thing.” Just the first of many examples of burning stupid, encountered as a student in the Texas public school system.

    • So you are a real born and raised Texican, Kristi? Wow.

      • KristiV says:

        Not born, and not entirely raised. I was born in Madison WI, and we lived in Boston and Minneapolis before I turned 6.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I guess your Texas-teacher didn’t have a Ph.D. in microbiology…

      • KristiV says:

        Absolutely not. I had a few good teachers in the public school system, but most were pretty poor. One high school teacher had a JD, but he taught us calculus and physics, not government or history, and he was woefully underqualified. In retrospect, I think the magnet high school I attended was essentially a technical training school for health professions. Somehow (luck perhaps) I managed to get into a decent undergraduate university, and I did quite well there, with a double major. Never had any trouble finding part-time employment in the medical center either, thanks to the vocational training in high school (Certified Nurse Aide).

  7. MGG says:

    As usual my husband and I are discussing work at the dinner table. My son who was then in kindergarten stops us midway and asks me, “Mommy what is this XYZ (acronym of the protein I work on) that you always talk about?” I am quite taken aback by the question– how do I explain about the XYZ protein to a 5-year old?.. But I try..I tell him what the letters stand for and what the protein does–as best as I could. Then he turns around to my husband and asks him, “Papa what about the letters you talk about?” My husband who knew it would be his turn next, still takes a full minute before he gets started. He tries to explain it very simply. My son listens to him in rapt attention as he did to me. Then he looks at both of us, wrinkles his face and remarks…”You both are all grown-up and big…and you are still working on your alphabets?!!!”

  8. Steve Caplan says:

    I know of a protein called ZYX(in), but not XYZ…

    • MGG says:

      Selaginella moellendorffii hypothetical protein (xyz), mRNA
      2,523 bp linear mRNA
      Accession XM_002960658.1 GI: 302754559

  9. This is hilarious!

    I have to say, though, that I’ve been with several scientist partners in my day, and I don’t think science ever featured much around the table. Might just indicate that I’m not cut out to be a *real* scientist.

  10. Steve Caplan says:

    That’s probably healthier for the digestion–you may not even need to buy any of Henry’s magic evolution-enhanced pellets. Anyway, *real scientists don’t eat quiche*…

  11. stephenemoss says:

    My parents were both chemists, in fact they met as chemistry undergraduates at UCL where I now work. But they quickly abandoned science after graduating and became art dealers. Dinner time conversations were more William Morris than Charles Darwin, but like Stephen Curry, there’s plenty of geeky chat now with my own kids.

  12. Steve Caplan says:

    It’s amazing how many responses there have been from scientists who have scientist parents!

    My own father is a pediatrician, and I have often thought about what drew me to research. I know that the previous generation of children from families of immigrants (in my case in Canada, but I’m sure it must be similar in the US, UK and other countries) strove for respectable jobs that would also earn money. Perhaps my generation–(or at least in my case) growing up without lacking anything materialistic, money (or large amounts of it) never factored in to any considerations about choosing a profession.

    On the other hand, it might just be my intrinsic hypochondria and/or aversion to people that self-disqualified me from a career in medicine…

    • The Boss tells me I am way too squeamish to have worked in medicine, Steve. Though she did say that, as I like to spend a lot of time in conversation, I might have fitted in as a psychiatrist

  13. cromercrox says:

    Both my parents were lawyers. They met as undergraduates at the London School of Economics.

    My earliest memories include hearing words at the dinner table such as ‘affidavit’. There are occasional scientists in both sides of my family – real scientists, with professorships and doctorates and all – and I have a feeling that my parents took to the law out of necessity rather than desire. It was either that or medicine, I guess.

    I suspect that the law, like science, demands a high level of the same kind of critical thinking and attention to detail, if done properly, so that having lawyers for parents is probably not as surprising as it sounds. My parents were both very supportive of my efforts to become a scientist, even though they freely confessed complete ignorance.

    • ‘I suspect that the law, like science, demands a high level of the same kind of critical thinking and attention to detail, if done properly’

      As a scientist who sometimes writes about law, and has had a few extended chats to lawyers, I think that’s spot on, Henry. I’m often struck by how many parallels there are, and similar ways of unpacking/analysing problems. On occasion I’ve actually toyed with the idea of doing the law conversion course at night school, though I think I’m too old and lazy now.

  14. Steve Caplan says:

    On another tangent, I couldn’t help noticing that you left out “Uncle Tungsten” from the science/science history books you noted in “Regular”. That’s as high on my list as “A short history…”, though both are great.

    • cromercrox says:

      Only if you promise to write a fawning advertorial for them in the Daily Nimbyist Bungaloid Curtain-Twitcher.

      • cromercrox says:

        I think that comment was a reply to one of yours posted upwardjacently.

        As to science books, I know not of the Uncle Tungsten of whom you speak, Earth Human. But there are so many good ones. I didn’t mention anything by Jared Diamond, or Steve Gould ….

      • Steve Caplan says:

        How about the Omaha World Herald?

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