The complete scientist—A call to arms

Last year, I was invited to speak at a “nonscientific” session of the Young MitoScientists Forum, a meeting organized by students, postdocs, and junior clinicians attending the associated international EuroMIT meeting. This marked the first and so far only time I have been asked to present a talk that was not strictly focused on the scientific work being done in my laboratory. I was both excited (wow, they’re interested in my personal thoughts?) and intimidated (who really cares what I think?) by the prospect. As I labored to find something helpful and impactful to share, I couldn’t get past the fact that I was being asked by these wonderful junior scientists to express thoughts and insights they considered to be nonscientific in nature. For as long as I can remember, I have been a scientist—everything I do and think, at least in my professional life, I consider relevant to being a scientist.

One Leg Won’t Do
The session was focused on mentoring, and while my presentation touched on this, ultimately it evolved into a lecture on my deeply held belief that being a complete scientist intrinsically includes—and must include—activities that transcend

Jodi Nunnari

research. To make my point, I compared being a scientist to the proverbial three-legged stool. To do its job, a stool needs three legs of equal length—two won’t do, nor will three of different strengths or lengths. In my analogy, the legs of the stool represent what I consider the three essential and equally important skills that scientists must master to be truly successful: research, leadership/mentoring, and public policy/outreach. At the time I was preparing my talk, I was already the President-Elect of the ASCB and the meaning and reality of my forthcoming role was also very much on my mind. So, it wasn’t lost on me that the legs of my stool almost perfectly reflect the ASCB’s mission: to advance scientific discovery, advocate sound research policies, improve education and public outreach, promote professional development, and increase diversity in the scientific workforce.

I wish I could say that I have always embraced and advocated this ideal of a complete scientist. The fact is that as a postdoc, I was exclusively focused on research, happily and smugly ensconced in my lab and cold room—my version of an ivory tower. At the time, the only reason I joined the ASCB was to attend its Annual Meeting and soak up the research being discussed during its scientific sessions. As I started my lab, however, it became immediately apparent to me that I was lacking in essential leadership skills, which I scrambled to master. Later in my career, largely due to my increasing involvement in the ASCB’s amazing Public Policy Committee, it became obvious that I had neglected my responsibility to communicate the importance of the scientific endeavor to our government representatives and the public. Learn from my mistakes: embrace the ideal now.

Credit: Lena Van Duzer

The Rewards of Mentoring and Outreach
During my career, some of my most professionally and personally rewarding experiences have come from mentoring junior scientists and reaching out to policymakers and the public at large to drive sound policy in science and to explain the central and vital role science plays in our everyday lives. The scientific discoveries made in my lab are all the better and sweeter because I have acted on my belief that my job is more than producing data. Luckily, the ASCB is an incredible resource for scientists who strive to become the complete package—the very reason that I find myself in the role of President today.

I now judge the success of my science colleagues not only by the results of their research programs but by whether they exhibit the holistic skills I believe are essential to being a good scientist. In a recent junior faculty search committee meeting, we were making the very difficult choice of which applicants to interview and I was impressed and heartened to see that for the very first time without prompting the nonscientific pieces—leadership/mentoring and public policy/outreach—were actively being valued and weighed into the decision. In my role as department chair, I am now considering whether we should formalize these criteria in future searches.

Dare I hope that this signals that we as a community are beginning to value and embrace the concept that being a scientist is more than doing science? I think so; the future, in my mind, looks bright. The junior scientists I’ve interacted with are perhaps the most committed to this ideal, as evidenced by the actions of our Committee for Postdocs and Students (COMPASS), which represents young scientists within the ASCB. Their creative and innovative activities directly promote opportunities for science advocacy and outreach. Their outreach grant program provides opportunities for ASCB scientists to engage their local communities in an effective grassroots fashion, with a focus on underserved communities. The impact of this program has been tremendous and inspiring (see, for example, and was the motivation behind the newly created ASCB Public Engagement Grant Program (
public-engagement-grants) funded by Science Sandbox, an initiative of the Simons Foundation.

Let’s Venture Out of Our Labs
I could share some of my philosophy on the research and mentoring legs of the scientist stool and probably will in future installments of this column, but here my objective is simpler: It is to call upon all of us to accept and fulfill our responsibility as scientists to venture out of our labs and comfort zones and to reach out to the public—a concept that COMPASS clearly gets. Why? For at least two reasons. First, it is the public—through government and charitable foundations and research institutes—that funds a majority of the research conducted in our labs today. We have an obligation to convince them it matters and to continue their support. Second, we are living in an era of extreme populist post-truth politics, where science is under siege, especially in the United States. Current policies on critical societal issues, like climate change, are being determined despite scientific knowledge, rather than based on scientific knowledge. We must change this mindset by building the public’s trust in science so that informed and better decisions are made. The goal of our outreach should be to create a better world by helping people understand the essential role science plays in their lives and by determining policy, building broad support for science funding, and encouraging nonscientists to think like a scientist without having to be one.

Make Outreach Personal
So, how do we as scientists go about effective outreach? We need to make outreach an everyday activity. We need to make it personal. I find inspiration in the social movement to obtain civil marriage rights for same-sex couples—a movement that successfully changed deeply held beliefs. The driving force behind this change was implementing an evidence-based approach that deliberately shifted the message to the public from the abstract (i.e., medical coverage issues) to one of personal connections and stories tied to common values. We can and should learn from this success.

As scientists, developing good communication skills is an integral part of our training. Seek out opportunities to put them to work and regularly tell a nonscientist a story about doing science that will matter to him or her on a personal level. Thoughtfully tailor your message to your audience. Be broadly knowledgeable in areas of science that impact society so that you can provide critical facts in the moment to nonscientists. Actively create opportunities. Use social media to communicate the work published in your lab so that it is accessible and understandable to the lay public. Create an outreach program. Encourage your institution to prioritize outreach through education and in other ways. Persistently communicate with government representatives—these efforts work, as demonstrated by the current bipartisan congressional support of the National Institutes of Health in the face of a President who seeks to slash science funding and by the recent removal of the provision from a tax bill that would have increased graduate student taxes.

To help you become an everyday advocate, take advantage of all the resources available through the ASCB. In our recent strategic plan,
outreach was a top priority.1 It’s my top priority as ASCB President. Our Public Policy Committee continues to do its vital work and our Public Information Committee is busy creating a suite of tools that members can use to enhance their everyday outreach activities. Stay tuned.

I conclude with gratitude to you, the ASCB membership, for your continued support. I am very much looking forward to our Annual Meeting, which will again be held jointly with EMBO, this year in San Diego. I thank our Past-President, Pietro De Camilli, and the Director of EMBO, Maria Leptin, for establishing this wonderful and fruitful collaboration. We will continue to build on it. I would also like to thank the 2018 ASCB|EMBO Program Chairs, Thomas Langer and Sam Reck-Peterson, and their committee for creating what will be a truly outstanding program. We will continue to build on the wildly successful Doorstep Meetings, initiated by our wise past, past president Peter Walter. We continue the tradition in 2018 with a Doorstep Meeting organized by Elaine Fuchs and Sean Morrison, “Beyond Homeostasis: Stem Cells under Stress.” Finally, I am grateful to the many scientists who volunteer their precious time by serving on our ASCB standing committees and Council and to the ASCB staff for their continued dedication and hard work. I look forward to working with all of you in 2018.

1Shugart E (2017). Tending the ASCB garden through strategic planning. ASCB Newsletter 40(1): 1.

About the Author:

2018 ASCB President