Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Science Professional vs. The Person

Happy New Year, Dear Readers!

I survived my New Year's party indulgence of mulled wine and homemade alfredo sauce. I started writing this yesterday, and then started editing when I returned home last night, admittedly under the influence of a bit of mulled wine. I broke a rule of wisdom:

Don't drink and edit a blog post, or, don't mull over mulled wine. It makes navel-gazing seem insightful.
More detrimental than drinking and dialing? Based on all of the shirts for sale expressing this sentiment...oh bloody hell, there's actually an app for that! #ClutchesPearls
Here is what triggered my mulling. I received what would be normally considered a pretty uneventful email a few days ago. Without getting into specifics, it was a very small professional request for a very small amount of assistance. It was not the request that made me do a double check (and a Google search to ensure that I wasn't making assumptions): it was the requester. See, this person is someone who's personal character I would call into question on my most charitable days. They are not someone with whom I would want to associate on a personal level. As the request was small (and really, it was a standard request), I obliged and moved on, at least physically. Mentally, though, I was still troubled, and the trouble had to do with how I was perceiving the situation.

This was the first time that I have had to seriously make a distinction between the Science Professional and the Person. Let me explain a bit. I work with a great group of ichnologists. They are professional and respectful, and bloody good at what they do. We are also good friends. I may have met them through my professional life, but these are people with whom I would want to be friends if we had met under non-professional circumstances. They are great scientists who are great people.

Here is where my personal, completely illogical bias comes in: if someone is a good scientist, I also expect them to be what I consider is a good person. More specifically, I automatically expect them to be the kind of good person with whom I would want to associate on a personal basis. I did not consciously realize this bias in myself until this email. As all biases do, it was lurking in the corners, influencing my judgement of situations, silently mouthing approvals or condemnations based on what I hear.

What traits fall under my definition of "good"? It's a fairly broad list, and there are many different interpretations of honest, respectful, considerate, sympathetic, empathetic, and ethical/strong sense of personal responsibility. For example, I have my own ethical interpretation of the sale of vertebrate fossils. There are others who have a completely different set of what they view as ethical in the sale of vertebrate fossils. The chances of me working professionally with person who has a professional ethical interpretation that is counter to my own will be tempered by that ethical interpretation, but I wouldn't shun them as a person. This isn't some "Oh, how big of me to let them in my life" thing, but just one of the realities of Science Professionals: you can disagree professionally with a person yet, after a vigorous debate, head to the local pub and grab a few drinks together and talk about everything else. Perhaps this is because I know so many great Science Professionals who are great People.

Now how about the person who is a good Science Professional, yet whose personal actions make you want to roast them with the Glare of Doom?

The Eye of Sauron does not hold a candle to the Glare of Doom. Your personal safety prevents me from showing images of the Glare of Doom. Image source here.
That type of professional-personal interaction I find the most difficult with which to deal, and that's the source of my mulling. Sometimes you have to separate the science from the person. A good scientist does not necessarily have to be (what I consider, at least) good person. That bugs me as a person, because I truly believe that being a good person helps you be a good scientist, because these personality traits are not those that I feel one just shuts off when you leave the lab. Here that? Those are my biases mouthing off once again, because these traits can be applied to a professional life yet be missing in a personal life.

The boiled-down point is this: I don't have to personally like someone in order to interact with them on a professional level. I don't have to like a person to agree with their body of work. Again, just one of the realities of being a Science Professional: just as you don't personally like everyone you meet, you are not necessarily going to like every Science Professional you meet. You may want to, but it's not guaranteed.

However, being a Science Professional does mean behaving ethically. It does mean being honest in your work and in anything that can have an impact on your work-related life. Professional courtesy is an old term for a good reason: you can't be a jerk to your colleagues and/or students and then expect them to want to work with you. Respect is a two-way street. There is a certain standard to which a Science Professional should hold themselves (and others.) Bad situations arise when these professional standards are violated. Since work is such a large part of a Science Professional's life, a professional faux pas has a good chance of having a negative impact on their personal life, and it's a two-way street. What goes around doesn't necessarily always come around, but the possibility lurks.

This likely won't be the only time I have a professional interaction where I will have to make this distinction, and I'm sure I am not the only one in science who has had to mull this over. There are still a few questions related to this issue that I have asked myself for which I have no answers. I'm sure I will find them as my mind free-associates during a run or a ski, which sounds like a good idea after the epic amounts of food that were consumed last night.

Here's to a Happy and Productive 2014!

3:34pm Update: I think the only way I can deal with making the distinction between the Science Professional and the Person is on a case-by-case basis, and this is a personal call. If I feel that their personal bad behavior is in any way related to their professional life, there is very little chance that I would want to be either personally or professionally associated with that person. I realize that, fair or not, this is the standard to which I hold Science Professionals. This will likely evolve with time (and experience.)

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