Scientists vs. Rock Stars

By Dr. Rebecca Dodder

My family is probably not typical.  We lean toward the science geek end of the spectrum.  I’m a scientist, my husband is an engineer, and our kids like math and science much more than any subject, unless recess is a subject.  My kids could tell you who Neil deGrasse Tyson is, but would be hard pressed to point out Justin Bieber or Rihanna in a crowd.  The fact that Justin Bieber is one of the few examples I can think of, probably speaks to how truly uncool I am.  Don’t quiz me on famous actors, singers, YouTube sensations, or popular TV commercials.

Scientists often don’t get visible recognition for the important work that we do.  Popularity is saved for the truly impactful, like funny animal video compilations.  So, when I found out in February that I would be visiting the White House as part of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, I thought that this was one of the brief and fleeting moments when I would be at least on the edges of the limelight — meeting the President — because of doing science as well as outreach to communities.

President Barack Obama joins recipients of the 2013 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) for a group photo in the East Room of the White House, May 5, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

President Barack Obama joins recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) for a group photo in the East Room of the White House, May 5, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

The ceremony included more than 100 scientists and engineers that had been nominated by National Science Foundation, Departments of Commerce, Defense, Energy, etc. and of course, EPA.  From my perspective, I was in a room with rising stars in science and engineering.  Individuals who had also reached out to students and their communities, connecting their science to people’s lives through mentoring and through service.  There were awards for work on cancer, digital forensics, antibiotic resistance, star evolution, self-healing metals, and my favorite, planetary protection.  I know our EPA Mission is protecting human health and the environment, but the whole planet?  That’s taking it up a notch.  However, another awardee told me that his “favorite agency” was the EPA.  Take that NASA.

We took the group picture in a large lovely room, with President Obama in front middle.  We had waited for a while, careful not to lock our knees, pass out, and fall off the podium.  Strangely enough, there was a stage, microphones, drums, and amplifiers on one side of the room.  Some of us made jokes about who could sing, but that was more of a side thought as we all waited for the President to walk in the room.  Then, he came, and spoke of the importance of science and engineering, of continuing to drive discovery and innovation, and of taking on challenging and complex issues.  We shook some other hands, John Holdren of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Jeff Bezos CEO and founder of Amazon.com.  Then we left.

The funny thing was — as we all walked out of the East Room, down the halls, and out of the White House, with this absolutely strange and dazed feeling of having just shook the hand of one of the most prominent people in the world — I remember passing another smaller group coming in, apparently heading into the same room from which we just came.  I remember thinking that, in my opinion, they were way underdressed to meet the President.  They were dressed mostly in black, a bit grungy in a rock star kind of way.  No suits, no ties.

Later on, I was looking at the White House website, and saw that the group I had seen was a hugely popular Mexican rock band, Maná, which could be described as the U2 of Mexico. I actually know and really like the band’s music, I just didn’t happen to recognize them.  The date was May 5th, Cinco de Mayo, and they were doing for a concert for the President.  The lesson is that rock stars are rock stars, and as scientists we continue the work that protects the environment, improves lives, and maybe even protects Earth’s biosphere from returned extraterrestrial samples just in case we do find life elsewhere.  And every once in a while, we will have our moments of glory, however brief.  And then we get back to work.

About the Author: Rebecca Dodder is a Physical Scientist specializing in the use of energy system modeling tools to assess issues related to biomass and biofuels, agriculture-energy linkages, the water-energy nexus, and the broader life cycle impacts of energy choices.  Rebecca holds a PhD in Technology, Management and Policy from MIT, where she worked with a research program on air quality in Mexico City.

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