24 October 2014

The art of asking in science.

I posted some love for Neil Gaiman's spoken words a few weeks back, so it only seems fitting that I follow up with inspiration from his partner, Amanda Palmer. She did a TED talk (the video is slightly NSFW at 10:49) last year that explored the relationship between artist and fan, emphasizing that we need to think less about how to make people pay for music and more about how to let them. She relates that asking people to help us is hard because it makes us feel vulnerable and shameful, but that asking for help can also create a profound connection with other people that allows a mutually beneficial transaction to occur. But watch the TED talk...she says it much better than I ever could.

I am not a professional artist or musician, but life in the ivory tower of academia does not shield me from the need to reach out to other people. I'm lucky that I don't have to ask people for financial help to pay my bills, but there are plenty of other circumstances in which my professional success rests on my ability to appeal to other people for assistance.

Learning to ask other people for help was a major stepping stone for me during graduate school, as I realized the need for assistance in troubleshooting lab techniques, designing experiments, and proofreading papers. As an assistant professor, asking for help is becoming even more of an art. I wouldn't be able to navigate the logistical issues of university bureaucracy without running to the office next door every few days. I belong to a small department, so connecting with other academic units on campus and at other schools is important to have access to resources for teaching and research. An important part of my job right now is applying for grants, which is really just another way of saying "asking for money to fund my research." Some scientists are taking an even more Amanda-style approach to paying for research by launching crowdfunding campaigns for particular projects. Moreover, my job as a bioinformaticist means I rely on other people for data, so asking for research opportunities is essential. I knew my job would require me to engage in asking, and even persuading, my peers to help me. I'm only starting to realize, however, what it means to ask students for help.

Am I really asking students to help me? That seems counter-intuitive to the stereotypical role of a professor, but indeed, we rely on students to take our classes and do research with us. As a newbie, I can't rely on my reputation to attract students to my class or lab. I have to ask students to consider it (hence my post from a few days ago: Student motivation, AKA please take my class). Sometimes that requires educating students about what I have to offer, like the ability to obtain marketable skills. Moreover, it makes me consider another question Amanda ponders: "Is this fair?" For my job, that means asking whether this student has the capacity to succeed, and whether it will be beneficial for them to spend the time, energy, and money to do so.

Framing my professional, scientific interactions as "asking for help" appeals to me on a fundamental level. It gives me the responsibility of finding the things I need. Moreover, it allows choice and freedom on the part of the audience, whether it's a student wanting to work with me or a funding agency deciding to award a grant. We pursue science because we think the work is interesting, but we're fooling ourselves if we think everyone will innately feel the same. Making an art of asking is a way of starting a conversation, and opens the door to persuade without being overbearing.

There is also a benefit in the act of asking a question. I wouldn't've ended up in graduate school if one of my professors hadn't asked me to consider it, and you certainly have to ask (i.e., apply) to receive a grant. I'm practicing asking questions as way to start a conversation about obtaining the things I need.

Can you fund my research?
Would you like to work on a project together?
Have you thought about going to graduate school?
Are you interested in taking my class?

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