Ariana Rostami ranks chemistry and biology as her favourite classes. She gets top marks in her advanced Grade 11 courses and is happy to discuss quantum mechanics. But ask her about a career in research and she grimaces as though someone suggested locking her in a dark closet.
Which is only a slight exaggeration of how she and many of her fellow students regard the scientific enterprise - they picture long, lonely nights exiled in a lab, isolated from other humans, continually begging for funding.
"Look up 'scientist' on Google," the 16-year-old says, "and you will see someone in a lab coat." At the moment, she is considering something with more immediate results, such as physiotherapy.
How do you change education systems that often drive students away from science and build a national culture in which the best young minds naturally envision themselves as future Nobel winners and not ostracized, penny-pinching lab rats?
Just ask the students in Ottawa if they can name a Canadian scientist. "Only if he's dead," jokes Shadman Zamau, 16, before volunteering Alexander Graham Bell - whose invention of the telephone is now more than 130 years old.
It's a very eye-opening article on an important issue -- attracting young people to science research careers. There's a very interesting tension, here, of course. You always want the best and brightest to pursue research careers. But there are many things that are discouraging them.
First of all, actual career prospects are mixed at best for academia. Salaries are often only mediocre after a very long apprenticeship. Compared to other careers like medicine or law, this is definitely to science's disadvantage.
Second of all, scientists have a very low media profile and what there is of it is very poor. Again, compared to medicine and law, what's the profile of science on TV or in the movies? Pretty well the only positive images are in the CSI shows, and those are more crime shows than science shows.
Third of all, science has a low social profile in Canada. When you look at how it's published (especially the major commercial and academic houses, which virtually ignore science and what's happening at NRC Press), how it's featured in newspapers and other media, what the various governments actually do as opposed to what they say they're going to do, it's hard not to argue that we're getting the national science infrastructure we actually want.
Interestingly, the one argument that doesn't resonate with me is the idea that science is poorly taught in high school and that discourages students. I went to high school, and all the subjects were taught poorly, not just science. I had good science teachers and bad science teachers. But the exact same thing was true of the other subjects as well -- there were good and bad teachers.
Anyways, read the article. It makes these points in much more eloquent detail that I can.
BTW, I can't help seeing this particular quote in the article as a clarion call for more Canadian science blogging:
Success breeds success, he says. "As a nation, we expect our hockey teams to win because they always have. If you are good as a nation at something, there are role models for young people coming through."
Scientists themselves accept some of the blame. Samuel Weiss, who won a prestigious Gairdner Award last year for his discovery that the adult brain can produce new cells, says Canadian scientists have to get better at thumping their chests.
"As scientists, we are way too reticent to tell the story and engage the community the way scientists engage the community in other countries. ... We'll point to government, but I don't know if we have made the case about how important science is."