Each fall, UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz co-teaches a seminar for graduate students – professors of the future – called ‘The American Professoriate.’ The class focuses on the role of public universities. This year, he teaches with Matt Springer and Buck Goldstein from the School of Education and Dean Suzanne Barbour of the Graduate School. Students and instructors write regular reflections on higher education’s role. We share some of those here.
By Dr. Suzanne Barbour
When most people think of a researcher, they picture someone toiling away by themselves in a lab, poring over data late into the night or tinkering with beakers and pipettes in focused intensity. And sure, there’s some of that in the academic world. But long hours and lonely lab time are increasingly rare.
Ambitious research, like almost everything in our complex, highly connected working world, is almost always a group effort. A senior scholar — principal investigator, in the terminology of the research world — leads a team of graduate students, postdocs, and faculty collaborators on projects that can last years or decades. The mission of scientific discovery depends as much on effective team management as it does on singular flashes of brilliance.
We try to prepare our students for all of that, for the notion that they’ll be responsible not just for their own work but for the lives and professional prospects of whole teams. “I was completely prepared for things to go sideways for me personally,” said Jason Mihalik, a professor in UNC’s Exercise and Sport Science program, describing to our American Professoriate class what it was like to lead a research team. “But you feel this huge responsibility to the people who have signed onto your project.”
You also feel an intense responsibility to the people funding your project. In a lot of cases, that means taxpayers. A few years before I came to Carolina, I served as a program director for the National Science Foundation. The NSF supports more than a quarter of all the basic research taking place at colleges and universities across the country, guiding more than $8 billion in grant funding for everything from arctic expeditions to zoonotic disease treatments. It’s a fascinating place to work, and it plays an extraordinary role in strengthening America’s scientific prowess, allowing our country to remain the global leader in science and technology.
One of my jobs as a program director was to ask grantees — brilliant, highly accomplished scientists — to write something called a lay abstract. A few hundred words explaining their research in plain English, or at least plain enough that a non-specialist could understand what they’re working on and why it matters. We asked for those simple explainers because the NSF, being a public agency, has a mandate to promote the “broader impacts” of science: Engaging the public and inspiring the next generation of diverse students to pursue careers in STEM. On a more practical level, it’s hard to ask taxpayers and lawmakers to pony up if they don’t know what we’re working on.
Yet so many academic researchers found the lay abstract to be maddeningly hard. After years of working in a very focused, very jargon-filled discipline, scholars often stumble in trying to make a pitch for their work to the broader world. The last two years have shown all of us how important it is that scientists and health researchers not only do good work but also find compelling ways of explaining it to people.
It’s been heartening to hear how many of the early career scholars in this class are already thinking about that skill. A lot of them are active in groups that do outreach to high schoolers or undergraduates to get them interested in science. Some of them are taking part in our annual Three Minute Thesis competition, where graduate students have 180 seconds and one slide to explain some very complex research in plain language. A lot of the students in this class got hooked on neuroscience or mathematics because of outreach programs early in their academic careers, because someone took the time to explain science clearly and make it relevant.
Advancing the frontiers of human knowledge has always been a shared endeavor, working best when ideas move freely across borders, disciplines, and generations. That can only happen when we know how to talk to one another and how to work together. We can’t engineer those skills in a lab, but we can leverage the collaboration that happens in classrooms and coffee shops, at conferences and research sites all over the world to inspire the next generation of STEM researchers. I’m proud to be a part of that effort at Carolina.
Dr. Suzanne Barbour is Dean of The Graduate School at UNC Chapel Hill and a professor of biochemistry and biophysics.