Students, School Projects, and Scientists
One of the most common kinds of e-mail I get is a request for an interview or information for a school project. There are two basic forms.
- A teacher has assigned students to contact professionals in some field of study (often the one the student states an interest in pursuing) to give a first-hand account of the daily life of a professional in that field or to discuss what preparation might be needed for that career.
- A student is doing a project on some topic in physics or astrophysics and has been instructed to contact a professional for information or feedback.
These kinds of interviews and discussions are not services I can provide.
There are a few reasons, including the time it takes and, in the case of the interviews, the difficulty of arranging schedules, often across many timezones. I’m also not deeply convinced of their effectiveness as a teaching tool. I can see that these interactions would be extremely valuable if a mentoring relationship could be built, but that’s a much bigger time commitment than just an interview or an e-mail (and really the scientist should be vetted before being selected for such a relationship). I understand and appreciate the value to a student of having a personal interaction with a scientist, if for no other reason than the fact that it can help make that scientist seem like more of a “real person,” and I wish I had time to give every student personal attention, but it just isn’t possible.
Fortunately, there are a lot of other resources available that can potentially provide a similar benefit, such as following a scientist on social media, attending public lectures, and reading published interviews, profiles, and personal accounts written by scientists. Over the years, I have done several interviews that are available to read, watch, or listen to online; I will include some links below.
I also understand that if a student has questions about, say, black holes, it’s very easy for them to get immediate answers to those questions if they can personally ask an expert. However, finding those answers through studying books, published literature, and online resources can be just as effective, without requiring volunteer one-on-one tutoring from an expert. There’s really not much learning in just getting the answer from someone else in an e-mail.
Many scientists and science communicators I know who are active or visible in public engagement are flooded with these requests. In some cases, I’ve heard of entire classes e-mailing one scientist out of the blue. We don’t want to be aloof — valuing public outreach is, after all, why we do so much on social media, in blogs and articles and press — but that doesn’t mean that we can be everyone’s personal on-call scientist.
If you’re a teacher and you really think an interaction with a scientist would be an invaluable teaching tool, consider trying to set up a public talk in your town, or a discussion between a scientist and your entire class through Google Hangouts or similar. If the audience is large and engaged, the scientist is more likely to be able to be able to justify the time commitment, and arranging a special event shows that you recognize the value of the scientist’s work. (Please don’t be offended if they still can’t do it.)
If you’re a student assigned to reach out to a scientist for a project, try to understand some of the reasons your request might not be answered. (If you’re having trouble getting a response, maybe you could show your teacher this page, and keep in mind that even just responding to politely decline can take quite a bit of a scientist’s time and effort.) Ultimately, if the scientist has a public profile, you’re likely to get more and better information by searching for what the scientist has made available online already.
My FAQ page
A few profiles of me and my work:
A podcast episode about my history in research, including setbacks and motivations
A podcast episode in which I talk about dark matter and its detection possibilities
Two YouTube series featuring me discussing a wide range of astrophysics topics:
An article by me in Slate about dark matter
Posts by others on the topic of being contacted for student projects:
- Science writer Carl Zimmer, "An Open Letter to Science Students and Science Teachers"
- Biology Professor Terry McGlynn, "When K-12 teachers assign students to contact experts"