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How to Be a Scientist

How to Be a Scientist

My name is Liz Cottrell, I’m a curator here
at the National Museum of Natural History here at the Smithsonian Institute and director
of the global volcanism program. I’ve always loved science ever since I was
a little kid. My dad would take me down in the basement and we’d do science experiments.
We built a model of an atom one time and we’d play with electric fields and magnets making
electromagnetic compasses. You don’t need to be the top mathematician
in your school to have a career in science, not at all. Doing well in your science classes
and math classes certainly helps in the sciences because a lot of science does come down to
having some quantitative skills, but there are some other skills that are equally important.
Good communications skills are really important. I think the most successful scientists are
those with good writing skills, good presentation skills, good people skills, good teamwork
skills… that’s a really fun thing about science. It’s a lot about teamwork.
I think the most important thing in school is just to pursue what you’re interested
in. If you become really passionate about it, pursue it and see what the next step is,
is there a local lab I can go and work in. Becoming a scientist is a bit of an apprenticeship,
you find a mentor and you apprentice yourself to that mentor and you try to learn every
thing you can from that person. Someday you become the teacher and you begin teaching
the next generations. I didn’t know what of scientist I wanted
to be. Chemistry became my favorite subject in high school and it was only when I took
a class in college on volcanoes on other planets that I became really fascinated with planetary
science and structures on other planets. Wanting to go to that higher level in science
also came through a conversation with my dad where we were talking about what it means
to be a scientist as a career and him saying, “Well, you really need to be discovering
new things, things that people have never discovered before.” That just really appealed
to me, the idea of being an explorer, an adventurer, and at the same time understanding the natural
world. I love my job, I love my job as a scientist,
I love my job here at the Smithsonian. My schedule is my own, that’s a great thing
if you have a family because it makes me really flexible. I can go pick my daughter up in
the afternoon and hang out with her and play with her. But if I do that then after she
goes to bed I have to work again in the night. So the total hours are difficult to balance
with family but the flexibility is really great. I could never stay home and give up
working as a scientist and I can’t imagine life without my daughter, Madeline.
I teach my daughter about science all the time even though she’s only two years old.
I try to give her the most accurate explanation that I can. You know, just the other day we
were biking home from work and she looked up at the sky and it was daylight and she
said, “Where’d the moon go? Where’d the moon go?” And to tell her the sun is
shining so brightly that we don’t see the moon was a more accurate answer than, “Oh,
the moon went to sleep.” So it’s fun to see her learn about all this stuff.
It’s really important to me as a scientist that people understand the scientific process
that science isn’t making guesses, that it’s a system of testing ideas in order
to arrive at what really is the truth. And helping people to understand that process
is really important to me. And there’s no place better to do that than the Smithsonian.

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