Science Is a Human Endeavor

Toward the end of my graduate studies, when I was itching to wrap up experiments and start writing, I did something radical. I signed up for a lay chaplaincy program, sort of a mini-clinical pastoral education (CPE) program, offered at that time through the university hospital.

I was reminded of this experience recently when I read an incredible blog, “Fountain Pens”, which, with its 260 well chosen words, threw me back to thinking hard about the relationship between science and humanity.

At the time I began the CPE program, I was really struggling, not sure whether I wanted to stick out the Ph.D. program to the bloody end (and it felt pretty bloody at that point).

Yes, I had devoted several years of my life to nematode husbandry. Yes, I had acquired a significant intellectual repository of information about worm sperm that would be largely useless outside of academia. Yes, I had suffered through and survived written and oral comprehensive exams. And yes, I was seriously considering leaving this huge investment of time and life behind me.

I had lost sight of what I had invested in.

So, every week, I left the laboratory, crossed the railroad tracks (literally), and spent several hours in the hospital visiting patients who were receiving bone marrow transplants. I worked one-on-one with a chaplain mentor, and I met on Thursday evenings for “verbatim” led by a faculty member from the School of Theology in which we spent a lot of time dissecting our reactions to our experiences as “chaplains”.

Every week, science crashed head first into humanity around me.

I developed a real appreciation for the nurses and other clinicians who got to know their patients as more than just statistics and data points on a chart. The physicians and physician/researchers (many of these patients were enrolled in experimental treatments) who took the time to invest personally in their patients, who learned family member names, who even began to get to know me, were the ones whose patients thrived. They were the clinicians who practiced high-tech medicine with an ethic of care. Science with humanity.

We all know that good “science must be objective.” Many of us were even taught to write scientific papers in passive voice to eliminate the personal because “science requires an objective viewpoint”. But objectivity does not mean devoid of mercy and compassion. Science is performed by human beings after all, and I think it gets into trouble when it tries to be something other than a human endeavor.

The fiction writers Shelley and Hawthorne picked up on this. In their stories, when scientists pursue science claiming “total objectivity”, science for science’ sake, the science often tries to become more than human, and that causes all sorts of problems.

In his book, Aging with Grace, Timothy Snowdon recalls his initial dismay at the requirement that he get to know his research subjects, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, before getting permission to conduct his study. While autopsy data, essays, and other information were evaluated blindly, in the end, knowing the individual research subjects deeply enriched the work of the scientists involved.

So perhaps, it’s really important for scientists and physicians to acknowledge that science and medicine are practiced by people on people and in that very acknowledgment begin to tear down the walls of misunderstanding that seem to be building up between scientists, doctors and “lay people”.

I did finish my Ph.D. by the way, but I didn’t stay at the lab bench. I chose instead to teach and write about science, to do those things that I thoroughly enjoy and share my passion for science with other people, hopefully bringing a little more humanity to the communication of science in the process.

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Michele Arduengo

Senior Content Developer / Social Media Lead at Promega Corporation
Michele earned her B.A. in biology at Wesleyan College in Macon, GA, and her PhD through the BCDB Program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Michele manages the Promega Connections blog. She enjoys leisure reading, writing creative nonfiction and knitting, and the occasional cross-country skiing jaunt.

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2 thoughts on “Science Is a Human Endeavor

  1. I keep trying to come up with an insightful response to this blog entry, but in the end all I can say is thank you for sharing this. I’m a PhD student in my final six months of graduate school, and even now I’ve had those moments where I thought maybe I’d just stop. I can’t tell you how much it helps to hear that other PhD students have felt the same way, and longed for something less detached.

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