The Bumbling Biochemist Begins - All superheroes have an origin story, but most are more exciting than her’s

I didn’t set out to become a science/scicomm (science communication) “superhero.” I also didn’t get bitten by a super spider or fall into radioactive waste. The alter ego just kind of grew on me, and it helped me connect with people as well as express myself. So I kept at it...

 

 

 

 

It all began in the summer after graduating from Saint Mary’s College of California (SMC) (2016), excitedly waiting to begin graduate school at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL)’s Watson School of Biological Sciences.

 

I had started doing biochemistry research through our SMC’s Summer Research Program the summer after my sophomore year. That experience transformed my life, so I guess you could say that this is when “The Bumbling Biochemist” was born, although she wouldn’t reveal herself until a couple of years later, when, after continuing my research for two years through independent study, I was working in the lab helping mentor two undergraduate students to pick up where I left off.

 

As a mentor, I had more free time in the lab then when I was doing the work myself, and it turns out, if you leave a college-educated 22-year-old alone in a lab with labeling tape, an empty conical tube package and procedural wait steps too short to do anything productive she reverts to pre-school arts & crafts mode... (this was also how #reSciCling was born...) 

 

 

 

 

I started looking for “WOW” in lab and found it everywhere and when I started sharing the pictures on Facebook and Instagram with #labwow, I realized I was helping others discover the true “WOW”s of science. People I hadn’t spoken to in years were commenting on my posts, even asking questions about the science, and this helped me appreciate the power of using unique, fun, ways to connect with people through social media – and teach them something in the process.

 

 

 

 

The happiness and excitement this brought boosted the inner Bumbling Biochemist brewing beneath the surface, and then, things started getting geekier. One day, I had a bit of down time and a spark of inspiration - not for dressing up as a superhero (that would come later) - but for drawing a super geeky comic (which I later digitized when I got into graphics).

 

 

 

 

I had another comic idea & decided I needed a pen name. I loved alliteration, and I certainly bumble my way through things, so The Bumbling Biochemist was born (in name alone).

 

 

 

 

Then, one day, I decided to put on a cape – I don’t even remember why…. And Broadcasts of the Bumbling Biochemist began! (note on PPE (personal protective equipment) - it was the middle of a hot summer and I wasn’t performing experiments).

 

 

 

 

Throughout the summer, the anxious excitement for grad school grew and grew. I would be going to my dream school, but that meant uprooting my entire life & moving across the country to a place where I knew no one. The Bumbling Biochemist helped me express these feelings in a way I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing personally.

 

 

 

 

Then, it was finally time for The Bumbling Biochemist to take off on her grad school adventure!

 

 

 

 

But, of course, she couldn’t leave without thanking the people who helped her find the strength to break out! The Bumbling Biochemist will forever be grateful for the fantastic education she received from amazing teachers at SMC (they’ve helped teach me to communicate with diverse audiences & inspired me to work more with undergraduates).

 

 

 

 

And, of course, the support of her family, who’ve probably been bored to tears as she tries to explain her work to them. She often “scicomms” with them in mind and hopes to one day be able to teach them with 0 boredom!

 

 

 

 

Being far away from home, it was important for me to stay connected to my friends and family, and The Bumbling Biochemist provided a fun way for me to update them on my goings-on. Making bumbling biochemist graphics was also a great way to relieve stress.

 

 

 

 

It also helped me learn how to use computer graphics software. I had started with freeware (GiMP & Inkscape) at SMC, but I received Adobe Illustrator through the Watson School, and slowly started teaching myself. I also started making a few infographics, covering topics including ocean acidification and lead poisoning. I’m still far from an expert, but I am able to make half-way decent figures for research presentations and write-ups, sci-comm articles (such as this piece on the Hershey-Chase experiment I wrote to compliment the #WiSEWednesday profile of Martha Chase I wrote for CSHL's Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) group ), and hopefully one day journal publications!

 

The bumbling biochemist took a bit of a hiatus during busy lab rotations and when preparing for my qualifying exam & thesis proposal defense. I was pushing myself so hard in the lab that, a couple of months back, I started to hit serious burnout. I needed some sort of creative outlet, and The Bumbling Biochemist (and the super-sheroes at WiSE) came to my rescue.

 

One of the first things I had done when arriving at CSHL was join the WiSE and I soon became its Social Media Chair. At the time, I had never used Twitter and only had private Facebook and Instagram accounts. But through my work with WiSE I discovered the online #scicomm community and started to feel at home.

 

I have always been interested in science communication, outreach, and mentorship, so I decided to try using The Bumbling Biochemist to teach people about biochemistry. And, to be honest, The Bumbling Biochemist is teaching me a lot!

 

Lately, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether scientists, female scientists in particular, should be spending time doing science communication through social media. Some argue that it detracts from our “real work,” but there are lots of kinds of “real work” in science, and not all of them happen at the bench. But, as I’ve found, science communication can even benefit those that do.

 

  • In my quest to educate accurately and concisely I am becoming more solidly rooted in the fundamentals and better able to think critically about what the important points to get across are. A solid foundation also helps me interpret new findings I hear about.

 

  • By looking in depth at why particular experimental steps are performed the way they are for my 365DaysOfScience thread, I’ve discovered ways to improve my experimental results and places where I can optimize protocols.

 

 

  • By sharing advice and things I’ve found useful in the lab through my #labtips thread, I’ve helped remind myself of best practices & hold myself accountable to following them!

 

 

 

  • By building a website, I’ve learned lots about website design, analytics, etc. (still very much a works in progress) and I’ve built myself a platform to practice both written and graphical #scicomm.

 

  • Learning more about social media and #scicomm through The Bumbling Biochemist has also helped me improve my work as Social Media Chair for WiSE, helping us better achieve our mission of advocating for women in science.

 

Each scientist contributes to #science in a slightly (or very) diff way and this is important and valuable, because each person learns best in a different way. I LOVE lab but‪ I’m OK never winning a Nobel Prize or even making a Nobel-Prize-worthy finding. Honestly, I’d be happier‪ knowing I’ve helped open the door for someone who never even imagined they could be a scientist to do it. So yes, I work very hard in the lab, but I also work hard on scicomm.

 

And, to be honest, it can take a lot out of me. One minute I will feel ecstatic after getting feedback from followers that my scicomm is having an impact, and  the next I'm feeling guilty that it's time away from my thesis work (even though I'm doing scicomm during wait steps, after work, my work hasn’t slacked off, etc.). But I’ve found scicomm helps put me in a more positive mood AND better understand what I'm doing in lab & WHY. And, in addition to helping me connect with the “public,” the Bumbling Biochemist has also helped me meet tons of amazing scientists who inspire me every day and help me get through the rough times. (There’s a reason (other than just alliteration) for the “bumbling” in “The Bumbling Biochemist”)

 

The Bumbling Biochemist surely isn’t perfect, and she’s not “super” or a “hero,” but that’s kind of the point – scientists are human and we struggle and make mistakes but we can still make a difference. And I really hope I can help make a difference - whether it’s helping a little girl see themselves as a scientist, helping a mother with little science education feel connected to her biochemist daughter, helping a patient better understand their diagnosis, helping discover a cure for that patient, or “just” helping someone appreciate the wonders of the world that the scientific lens provides.

 

I’m only a second-year graduate student, and I don’t know where the scientific life will take me and my alter ego, but I hope you’ll follow along on my journey! (And ask questions! The Bumbling Biochemist will do her best to answer cries for biochemistry help!)

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