Laleh Cote interviewing Alex Droster at Berkeley Lab.
Laleh Cote interviewing Alex Droster at Berkeley Lab. Photo courtesy of the author.

When people ask about my research, more often than not, they want to hear about the “big picture,” not the nitty-gritty details. People don’t generally want to fall into some rabbit hole over brunch. However, as a graduate student, going down those “research rabbit holes” is how I spend most of my time. Outside of research talks, I rarely share this side of my work. With this in mind, I want to take you down one of those rabbit holes, and offer you a glimpse into my world. I’m not going to answer a question with this essay, but rather, take you with me as I ask it.

Last semester, I took a qualitative methods course with Dr. Kris Gutiérrez in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education, who taught me to generate different types of data from one segment of video footage, uncovering new meaning each time. For this exercise, I interviewed Alex Droster, who recently graduated with degrees in Physics and Mathematics from the University of Chicago. I am curious to understand the relationship between participation in an apprentice-based research experience (ARE) and the development of one’s science identity. AREs are driven by one-on-one interactions between early-career researchers (students or post-baccalaureates) and their research mentors. During the semester I returned to this footage repeatedly, examining it in order to make sense of our dialogue, body language, and visual expressions.

I first met Alex when he was an intern at Berkeley Lab. To begin our interview, I ask him to describe the research project he’s been involved with in the Kusaka Lab. He explains: “I’ve been working on building… an adiabatic demagnetization refrigerator… it’s essentially an ultra-cold refrigerator that can cool things down to sub-Kelvin temperatures…There’s a telescope down in Chile, in the Atacama Desert, that looks at space and senses light from the CMB, which is the cosmic microwave background, and tries to detect little polarization differences in that light … [they] are really faint. So, in order to get a good signal-to-noise ratio, your detectors have to be held at really low temperatures… this cryostat that I’m building is going to be a test bed for detectors, in order to study the CMB… ” During this summary he makes emphatic hand gestures while describing concepts of particular importance, like the moment when he defines the acronym “CMB” as the cosmic microwave background. He then explains why studying the CMB is important, saying, “… it contains a lot of information about the energy scale of inflation after the big bang… and if we know that, it will tell us whether or not the universe will continue expanding, or contract ….”

Here, I am most intrigued about the fact that he uses the word “us” versus “them”. Alex is (perhaps unknowingly) referring to himself as one of the physicists who stands to gain knowledge about the early universe, positioning him as a member of the scientific research community. I’m curious about what he’s learned from the internship, from his perspective. He tells me, One thing that stood out is: I feel a lot more confident in myself after having worked in research full-time. I worked for a year part-time with research when I was in schooland I always felt I just thought my work wasnt, you know, the quality of a grad student or something… working full-time really allowed me to manage my own project…. ” I feel this. I remember my own experiences going through these same internship programs. In the beginning, many tasks assigned to me were mysterious, seemingly presented in pieces. In retrospect, it’s likely that the work was almost always presented with context, but I didn’t understand the terminology, the protocols, or where anything was located in the lab. But, like Alex, eventually things came together. I remember hearing a concept in group meeting, and then encountering that issue while going through a DNA extraction protocol in the lab. As things began to shift in this way, so did my perceived role within the scientific community. This is one of the reasons I’m interviewing people like Alex, who have come to Berkeley Lab to get hands-on experience with research in their field, and may be coming away from the experience having examined themselves as, for example, a physicist.

As he’s talking through his response, he looks off to the side, at a space beyond the bounds of our conversation, describing his memories in words. I probe a bit further, asking him, “It sounds like you, it sounds like you’re coming out of it with some understanding of how you work as a researcher, or as a scientist?” With this last statement, my eyebrows shoot up, and then I say, “I don’t know how, how you would identify yourself?” Alex adjusts his glasses, and then chuckles a little, his face changing into a smile. And then, something else emerges. His face changes very briefly into a different expression, which became a focal point of my analysis this semester. I can best describe it as a face someone would make if they felt ever so slightly embarrassed or taken aback in some way. It appears to be a strong reaction to what is, on the surface, a relatively benign question. However, in retrospect, many students and post-baccalaureates I’ve interacted with in the past have struggled with their role in the presence of researchers at Berkeley Lab. Even defining what it means to “be” a scientist can be daunting. This is one space in which I’d like to explore the tension between pursuing a career in science, and actually feeling like a scientist, in contrast to someone who “likes” or “studies” science.

Alex Droster working at Berkeley Lab during his internship, in the Physics Division. Photo credit: Marilyn Chung. © 2017 The Regents of the University of California, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Alex Droster working at Berkeley Lab during his internship, in the Physics Division. Photo credit: Marilyn Chung. © 2017 The Regents of the University of California, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Following up with Alex after the interview, he agreed that “the face” was indeed a window into some internal conflict, saying, “… labeling myself as a scientist or a researcher is something with which I’ve struggled. At what point am I a real scientist or a researcher? I’ve held the job title “Research Assistant” before, so I suppose I’m definitely a researcher in some degree. But what about scientist?… I do science professionally in the sense that I get paid for science research. Does that make me a scientist?… I’ve actually thought about these questions a lot… because I’ve wanted to be a scientist (whatever that means) ever since I was a kid. The face I make … is me consciously recalling these questions I’ve asked myself in the past.”

Looking up the word “scientist” in a dictionary isn’t going to answer my question. Nor is presenting that definition to a student who wants to be one. How an individual feels about what it means to be a scientist, and how well that aligns with their self-concept is likely going to impact their academic and professional pathways more than someone else’s definition. This, of course, isn’t the whole story. It’s just one tiny sliver.

Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle. — Lewis Carroll

The author wholeheartedly thanks Alex Droster for his trust and engagement, Mica Estrada, Erin Palmer, and Sabriya Rosemond for their perspectives on science identity, and Kris Gutiérrez, Krista Cortes, and Karen Villegas for their guidance on this work.