The Student: Neither Here Nor There

LILY ZHANG

We students should embrace where we stand, for while we aren’t committed to research for life, we still have much to look forward to in terms of exploration and breakthroughs.

Gateway, Lily Zhang FeaturedWhen talking about public engagement with research, many focus exclusively on the public-academia dichotomy. By doing this, however, they risk ignoring a group just as important to the debate—the students who occupy the chasm in between. As undergraduates about to embark on the research journey, we don’t fit neatly into either category. Our involvement and interest in research extends beyond that of the general public, but (with a few exceptions) we haven’t yet dedicated our lives to research. Yet most of us will agree: research needs to be more widely dispensed to the public.

We can throw around arguments of ethics and community, but for most of us, there is a more personal and selfish reason for holding this view—public outreach of research shaped our own academic careers. We all started out squarely in the public category; then, through some series of events we were introduced to research, transitioning into this halfway stage, this chasm I mentioned. And to be honest, we should embrace where we stand, for while we aren’t committed to research for life, we still have much to look forward to in terms of exploration and breakthroughs. It’s a unique and exciting position to be in, but we have to remember how we got here in the first place.

I actually owe my interest in research to various forms of public outreach. Popular Science taught me to admire not just scientific facts, but scientific discovery. One particular article, “‘Micromasonry’ Turns Cells into Lego Blocks for Building Artificial Organs,” brought me to the PubMed website in search for more information. Although many of the medical terms and methodologies were beyond me, I was spellbound by the incredible intricacies of research. Soon I was reading publications by other researchers and participating in research work myself. You could say that my current aspirations can be traced back to that one afternoon with Popular Science, the team of Javier G. Fernandezand Ali Khademhosseini, and their efforts to engage the public in their research.

In the humanities as well, my first steps into philosophy came from Berkley professor Hubert Dreyfus and Harvard professor Sean Kelly’s All Things Shining, a book that first brought me into contact with the Odyssey and the Divine Comedy. And a few episodes of Michael Sandel’s popular undergraduate course Justice helped me face tough questions about democracy, equality, and citizenship. Once again, it was academic outreach through print and broadcast media that inspired me to consider further studies in an unfamiliar field—I did not start by seeking out Homer, Dante, Mill, or Tocqueville. I started with Dreyfus and Kelly and Sandel, who have championed these classic thinkers for the benefit of students like me.

So while there are many other reasons for engaging the public with academia, at the very least researchers should consider addressing the public to inspire the next generation of academics. True, education exists to provide said inspiration, but nothing more accurately informs aspiring researchers than efforts by academics themselves. I’m pretty sure that I would still place clinical practice over scientific research if it weren’t for my exposure to Popular Science, and I know I would never have considered philosophy if it weren’t for All Things Shining. As for the future, I’m not certain what I plan to do, but a career in academia is high up on my list.

Those of us who occupy this chasm between academia and the public—the students—can benefit from media that broadcast research. But we should also play our part in promoting it. (Yes, you got me; I’m kind of promoting Brevia here.) Seriously, tell your research story, and learn about what others are doing. Research shouldn’t be the esoteric, stuck-in-the-Ivory-Tower endeavor that it’s made out to be. And no one is more suited to bring together the public and academic realms than those who have one foot in each. It’s about time that research earned a greater place in the community and stopped being such an individual pursuit. It’s not just about engaging an undefined public, it’s about engaging ourselves.

Lily Zhang is a Brevia staff writer. She can be reached at lilyhongzhang@college.harvard.edu.