King's student discovers love of science

Inclusiveness is something we value at King’s, but the breadth of this inclusion often fails to extend into “the sciences.” There is no accusation worse than “other-ing” for a typical King’s undergraduate student. When it comes to the realm of the sciences and math, “other-ing“ occurs with a feeling of justification. Science happens “over there” at Dalhousie, a comfortable distance from the King’s courtyard.

I retired from math and sciences at 15 years of age. Since then, I’ve gone to great lengths to justify my lack of success in these domains. My high school mantra was “I will never face these vacuous topics again.” I repeated this to my high-level math class peers: “Math and Science are just so removed from reality,” my arrogant grade 10 self decreed. So, I went off to King’s to study philosophy. (Cue the laugh track.)
I am now a third-year Contemporary Studies (CSP) student taking Gordon McOuat’s Science and Culture course. Like other CSP courses, a component of every student’s final mark comes from an oral presentation. In McOuat’s class, there is a more unconventional option—a small number of students go into a research lab at Dalhousie and act as anthropologists.
The students spend time in a laboratory, observing and philosophizing scientific practices. So when it came time for me to choose a presentation topic, the opportunity to visit a research lab appealed to me. The self-loathing theorist within me whinnied at the idea of exploring an active environment, but I decided to take advantage of an opportunity that most philosophy students don’t have: actually having to move around for an assignment. For the first time in my philosophy degree, I was told to “philosophize.”

The wet lab at the Andrew Roger Biochemistry Lab at Dalhousie University. (Photo: Owen Woodside)

I threw myself into an unfamiliar setting and learned about a field that is unknown to me. It was intriguing. It allowed me to engage critically in actual time and space rather than with the space between my eyes and a book.
A few other students and I were sent to visit the Andrew Roger Biochemistry Lab.  McOuat described the project to the researchers and then left. I remained, trying to explain the assignment to the researchers, and I found myself admitting I wasn’t entirely sure what I was looking for. I sat with the lab head, Jacquie de Mestral, in a conference room that divides the wet lab from the computer informatics area. She was friendly and helpful—introducing me to all the lab employees and trying her best to help me get a sense of the science done there.
The Roger Lab studies the evolution of eukayotic cells, the more common of two kinds of single-cell organisms which make up life on Earth. Some researchers are using gene sequences to see where they stray from “the tree of life” and could possibly affect the study of diseases that live without oxygen.
I dropped into the lab whenever I had a bit of free time and felt comfortable there. I was fascinated to learn several of the researchers had come to Dalhousie from abroad.  Michelle, a PhD student, is from Luxembourg. Martin grew up in the Czech Republic. I wondered what it would be like to transfer scientific concepts and terms from one language to another. Michelle and Martin both agreed the terms of different languages are on par. This is likely unique to science, where there is no room for subjectivity. Both researchers mentioned, “English is the language of science,” an expression I have heard before but had never quite understood. They explained almost all scientific conferences and publications are in English.
My experience in the Roger lab taught me more than I ever have or likely will learn again about biochemistry. I was able to see the inner workings of an operating lab. I learned a lot about the Canadian research granting process—some of which could provide a solid ground for conspiracy theory.  I also learned just how little truth there is to the stereotype of a dull dry scientist. The people I met in the Roger Lab were fun, kind and helpful and they made the lab into a lively and comical atmosphere.
I am delighted to have been able to sit in on a real live research lab. This kind of active philosophy that engages with people and their environment is just what I was craving. It was a pleasure to arise from my leather armchair, put down my pipe and walk away from the courtyard.
Date submitted: Mar. 16, 2013

By David J. Shuman

David is the current editor-in-chief of The Watch and writes on student issues and events. Find him on Twitter: @DavidJShuman

3 replies on “King's student discovers love of science”

If anything is vacuous, it’s this opinion column. There is no “other-ing” when one says that science doesn’t happen at King’s. Science DOES happen over at Dalhousie. The field of study that is done at King’s is NOT science; it is the critical study of science as a field of study and its influence on culture. In fact, what you were doing doesn’t really sound like philosophizing either. In order to really “philosophize”, you’d have to be able to understand science in its own terms and context– at King’s, you would likely be studying science from a whole bunch of different contexts, but a new observer simply interested in a lab could never understand science in the terms that the scientist uses, because it is something that is developed from years/decades of study. For example, I’m a King’s student (formerly with CSP) and a physics/math student: I’m learning the terminology, the mathematical background, and an understanding of the crucial experiments in physics that comes from the way physics “historicizes itself.” In studying at King’s, I’ve learned that this history is not necessarily correct (magic is embedded in science’s ACTUAL history in a way that physics tends to conveniently ignore- for example, Newton’s role as a magician), but it’s a part of accepting physics as one of many valid standpoints to interpret reality. I honestly can’t tell you if I LOVE science or not (as you so boldly claimed), because I have only SEEN science done and experienced its after-effects. Maybe, if I actually become a scientist, I will experience it as anti-human and narrowing my perspectives on life; I have no idea. Science has done important things to advance society- that point is probably indisputable; but one extended trip and series of discussions with scientists does not equate to a love of science.

Re: Physics
I think we run into serious trouble when we consider “science” to be some rigidly established set of practises, universally and identically understood by a variety of practitioners. While there is certainly an immensely complex history of formal guidelines and tradition in the practice, claiming that we can pinpoint the factors and rules that contribute to the amassing of scientific knowledge simply through of “years/decades” of independent study sounds pretty far-fetched. Philosophizing about science – particularly in the context of science’s development as a social phenomenon – certainly requires a consideration of the terms and contexts employed by individuals in the field. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, however, and assume that a clear understanding of the scientific process and its culture can be gleaned from the distilled opinions of certain individuals.
On another note, lets not forget that this piece was (presumably) written out of the author’s interest in sharing an academic experience. Labelling this work as “vacuous”, which undoubtedly took considerable time for the author to prepare, doesn’t only cast the argument you are trying to present in an uncomfortably antagonistic light. It also serves to discourage this author, and other potential authors, from sharing their experiences in the lab and classroom. Lets save the hyperbolic cheap shots for friendly Wardroom debates, shall we?
*Full disclosure: Although I am involved with the Watch’s executive, my opinions are solely reflective of my experiences as a HOST student.

I think the commenter below missed the point of the article. The writer appears to have bid a less than fond farewell to the sciences in high school (as did I) but the visits to the science lab at Dal affirmed for her that scientists are just people working for the betterment of humankind through scientific study. It looks to me like the writer was shown a human side to science – and felt enlightened. That’s what I learned from reading the article.

Leave a Reply