Science always has a broader impact

Scientists love science. It’s true. Most of us are in the business of science because we love it. We eat, breathe, sleep it. We bring it home at night. We take it on date night. We tweet, blog and instagram about it.  We even name our furry friends after it (Hi Bif aka Banded Iron Formation aka newest member of the Yeager-Rongstad household). But we don’t just love science.


This is Bif. He likes rocks just as much as I do. And he has an instagram (follow him @bifbarks)

We love sharing our science too. It’s not just about the doing. Our findings are meaningful. We present them at conferences, to advisors, to peers, to classes, and at invited talks. We publish them in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Our findings are interesting. Teachers teach them. Researchers build on them. Ideas are grown from them. The world learns from them.

But scientists don’t just love sharing their science with other scientists. We want to share our science with everyone. Our grants may require us to share our science with the broader non-scientific community, but most of us would do it regardless. We want the public to be engaged. We want to make our science fun and understandable. We want everyone to care about what we do. Science matters, and we want you to care about it too.

Which brings me to this: Science always has a broader impact. The National Science Foundation defines broader impacts as “the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.” In short, science should always matter to more than just the scientist doing it.

Scientists are tasked with learning from, understanding and solving the world’s most pressing problems. Whether our research findings will contribute to saving an endangered species, stamping out breast cancer, or understanding how the planet will respond to future rapid climate change, our science means something to the world. And it is our duty to share it with the world. We may have to speak louder and work harder so that our work is heard outside of our field, but we must do it.

And while sharing science is a good first step, scientists shouldn’t stop there.

Scientists should engage the public. We may be the experts, but we’re not the only ones on this planet. We can get the community involved through public forums, hands-on activities and solution implementation. We can involve local communities in fieldwork. We can encourage change in our local communities and governments.

Scientists should mentor. Our excitement and expertise can inspire others. We can embolden young students toward a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). We can provide opportunities to minorities and underrepresented students that would not have otherwise presented themselves. We can even teach older members of the community who are eager to learn more.

If I can do it, so can you: A scientist mentoring case study.

lensonclimatechangelogoLast month, I had the opportunity to start my own broader impacts journey. I participated in a fantastic week-long outreach program, Lens on Climate Change (LOCC), that brought high-school-aged Upward Bound students to the CU-Boulder campus to engage in a film making project documenting the effects of environmental and climate change in their communities.

The students were divided into small groups and each student group was assigned a film and science mentor. My job was to serve as a science mentor to a group of four students interested in STEM from diverse backgrounds and communities. Essentially, I was there to make sure that the students (1) thought about the scientific process and (2) stayed true to the science of their chosen topic throughout the entire film making process. The film mentor’s job was to give the students a solid introduction into filmmaking and to oversee the entire filmmaking and editing process. While both the film mentor and I were there to keep the group on task, it was totally up to the students to brainstorm video topics, research facts, create a story, film their story and edit their film to a final cut.

While my group of students came from different places and diverse backgrounds, they were able to agree that green technology was something they believed their communities could benefit from. Check out their short film below!

Now, you may think my mentoring duties ended with this wonderfully creative short-film. But honestly, I think my most important mentoring came while I ate lunch with my students on filming day. While timid at first, the students began to ask my lots of questions: What do you study? Why does it matter? Why did you become a scientist? What can you do after school? What did you leave consulting? How did you decide to become a geology major? After awhile, they were on a role, and I was soon telling my whole science journey. But perhaps the most important thing I told them during that short lunch was “Don’t let anyone dictate your future.” I never had anyone tell me I could be a scientist, and I struggled until I stopped trying to fit the wrong mold. I wanted those young STEM students to know that no one should control who they become, and I hope that at least one of them took some of my words to heart.