Today's What Was It comes from Laurel Fiske. She's the person who actually does the groundwork for all those neat studies that show up in journals, and occasionally in newspapers. She's also proof that not all science nerds are locked up in a sunless room hissing at intruders.
When anyone has a problem with the results of a study or a survey, they start looking into the methodology. It's up to Laurel Fiske, and people like her, to make sure that they don't find any problems. She's a clinical research associate for California Pacific Medical Center. This means she does the work, rounding up study patients, making sure their demographics reflect accurate data, and objectively keeping tabs on the data as the study is conducted. She's done everything from putting ERP caps on people as they read sentences that don't end as expected to see what the brain does when its surprised to dosing people with MDMA, or ecstasy, to see it if helps treat post traumatic stress disorder. She's even done, as she says, "meta-testing, on schizophrenics, to see if they really understood what they were agreeing to when they signed up for a study."
What got her into a science career?
I love science; every day we are learning more about the way things work. But if I had to stare at a Petri dish or a program a computer all day I'd start screaming. Post college, I wasn't sure what was out there for a person like myself; someone who wasn't rushing off to get a higher degree and live in academia. I was thrilled to learn that there were careers in science where you get to work with people but don't have to go to conferences all the time. No two days are the same in my workday, I could be called to rush over and see a new patient, I could evaluate a patient I've known for years, I can play music and work away at data and regulations at my desk. Most valuable to me, I get to form close relationships with my patients; we both share the experience of working on something together that might benefit them, and will at the least contribute to science.
This isn't to say that her career is all about hugging it out with patients. She's there to make the experience comprehensible for the patient, yes — but her job is also being objective about the data from the studies, which is hard, she says, when you're getting information from a bunch of different people. She's says, "It is the researcher's job to remain as objective as possible and gather data without interpreting it, and to resist attempts of the research volunteer to give a less than honest answer. For example, a person who wants to appear tough so they won't admit how sick they are feeling, a drug addict who wants to please you with their success, an earnest person who really really wants to give you the answer they think you want."
We so often think of all scientists as living in a rarefied atmosphere looking at data, focused on objects and away from people. Not always. Scientists who gather important data can also be, well, big sappy people who are able to take joy in interacting with other human beings. Imagine that.