Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Chemists are unique but are very much like each other

It's a curious thing about chemists that most of us like to think of ourselves as rational thinkers making individual decisions that are unlike those made by anyone else. Just like the Apple commercial (and most of us appear to own more than one Apple product) told us to do long ago, we follow the credo "Think Different." The thing is that in our rational choice making, we tend to arrive at the same conclusions, and hence to an outside observer, we appear to all be alike. Many of us walk tangents (exhibiting that we understand geometry better than everyone else.) We buy Apple products because they are sleek, easy to use, and set us apart from corporate types who have to buy the company's choice of PCs. When we travel, we spend our time optimizing how to deal with airplane/airport headaches, and invariably arrive at similar strategies. In short, we are a marketing segment of the population that is as classifiable as any other. In this respect, we probably aren't very distinct from other scientists.

So how do we impart such non-uniqueness onto our students? At first order, we train them to think just like ourselves. Students need to learn how to solve chemical problems of the type that we have become experts at solving. So, of course, we teach them to approach the problems in the same way that we approach them. After a few years working together, our students even start mimicking some of our mannerisms. But what if our students aren't like us to begin with and they simply can't see us in themselves at the beginning (let alone the end) of their research journey? I suppose that they could find a different research advisor. Perhaps a better answer is to look for ways in which we can teach them the tools while letting them personalize them to their own way of thinking? That requires the faculty mentor to bend as well, growing in the process. If successful, we would then be truly imparting a uniqueness onto our students that match their own. In so doing, we can also open up the profession to a more diverse cohort of students. Sadly, the next generation of such scientists would likely still be an easily classifiable marketing segment...

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