Sunday, August 21, 2011

Science Fans

Last week I had a new experience.  I have been attending a conference in another country and gave a plenary presentation. It went well, and afterwards, several people approached to talk and ask questions. Two students came up and told me that they were big fans of my work...had read all of my papers, etc. Both, by the way, were female.  The one who could speak English the best and who seemed to be most "star-struck" asked if she could have her picture taken with me.  I obliged.  

I then asked the students about their interests and what their research projects were about. They were soon joined by other women, professors and students, all of whom were apparently fans of my work.  We had a great time exchanging stories about our work and experiences (problems, triumphs).

Anyway, this was the first time I've ever experienced this--being asked to have my picture taken with someone...a stranger.  I have been approached by students before who liked my papers and wanted to meet me.  The request for a photo was new, though.  It seemed awkward from my viewpoint, because I do not know this student.  However, I realized that she felt she knew me through my papers and especially just having heard me give a presentation.  So, it makes sense, I suppose, to want to have a photo of me.  I'm not sure what she will do with this photo. Keep it on her computer desktop as encouragement through her graduate program? 

I relate this story to make a point, which is that we often don't know how much our research articles influence others, especially students and junior scientists.  It's only when they come up to us at meetings and tell us about the impact our work has had on them personally that it becomes apparent.

These students (and their female professors) explained that they followed my work and looked forward to each new paper.  They also explained that they had been encouraged (by my work) to pursue a particular area of research themselves.  I hesitate to use the term, role-model, but that was what I was thinking when they were explaining how they viewed me and my publications. I had not thought of being a role-model in this way before...for strangers I may never meet or meet only briefly.

Is it better to meet someone you admire (who perhaps will not live up to your expectations) or never meet and maintain your mental image of them?

I recall meeting a Famous Scientist early in my career, someone whose work I admired, and being quite shocked to discover what a jerk he was.  It may have been better had I never met him, as I could never look at his papers with quite the same admiration after meeting him.   

On the other hand, I've met scientists whose work I had followed for years and who turned out to be great people and very supportive.  Some have become good friends over the years. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have a fan club too. I even have a fan club prez in Germany, road manager in Italy, and distribution agent in Ohio! I get fan mail constantly from students, postdocs, and profs all over the place, thanking me for writing a (in)famous paper that they distribute often to their students and cover in their classes.

I was an invited speaker for a very large conference in another country. I was asked to sign the conference book, asked for pics, asked for advice, also all by women students like your experience. I was quite taken aback the first day. They stopped me in the BATHROOM!, on my way to/from the bathroom!, in the elevator. I even got stopped by a group of women while waiting for a cab on the street outside the hotel! One woman knocked on my hotel door late at night and when she realized I was in my pajamas and slightly sleepy, she apologized profusely, but I told her to come in and we can chat. She had a list of questions she wanted to ask, and I didn't realize it would take a long time (her list was longggg). She asked everything from how to find mentors, how to collaborate on papers and grants, how do I come up with research questions, how do I decide which meetings to go to, who are the good people in the society, which classes to take, and on and on.

On the last day of the conference, one of the organizers told me that my talk is what all the students are talking about, and that they said they had never seen a woman give a great energizing talk before on something they work on and know about. I'm still surprised and saddened by this.

On Christmas Day, months after the meeting, I got an email from one of the women at the conference. It had a pic of us from the meeting attached. The funniest thing about it is that there were 2 women students in the background (photobomb!) holding up the peace sign and smiling along with us.