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Learning to ask good questions

Posted By Mary C. Reiley, Thursday, April 23, 2015

Learning to ask good questions

 (a "reprint" of my short for the Chesapeake and Potomac Regional Chapter Spring 2015 Newsletter)

"When you are a student you are judged by how well you answer questions. But in life, you are judged by how good your questions are. You want students and postdocs to transition from giving good answers to asking good questions. Then they'll become great professors, great entrepreneurs, great something."


This is a quote from an interview by freelance writer Trisha Gura with Robert S. Langer and published in the November 28, 2014, edition of Science.  I skim Science each week when it shows up in my mailbox.  I say skim because to read the entire publication each week would require ignoring my spouse and children, not going to work, and excluding all other activities and endeavors from my daily life! When I skim Science I’m reading titles and asking how they might tie into my interests in environmental sciences, organizational operations, communication, and leadership development. The title of the interview with Dr. Langer was The art of entrepreneurship and there was a bold italicized quote in the center: “Don’t sacrifice publishing good science to be secretive.”  Thus the interview caught my eye and I stopped my skim to read.


Turns out Dr. Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT in Cambridge, is the most cited engineer in history (more than 163,000 citations). He holds more than 1000 patents, licensed or sublicensed to more than 300 companies and he has helped found at least two dozen biotechnology companies (from the lead to the published interview).  I was intrigued.


The interview was an interesting and entertaining read.  But it was the quote near the end of the interview (the lead to this article) that made me stop and think: do I ask good questions?  am I selling myself short by not asking better questions? am I mentoring the junior staff I work with, the students that intern with me, my own kids, to ask good questions? How good am I at asking beyond the obvious and encouraging others to do the same? I know I can give good answers or confirm that I don’t know but will find out -- I’m well trained in that art.  But, am I really thinking and questioning for insight and growth?  To be a “great something”?


Isn't this what we hope for all of SETAC's students? Heck, for all of SETAC's members? That we all become "great somethings"?  It is one of the principal purposes of Regional Chapters, Advisory Groups, Committees, SNA, and SETAC - to train new scientists, to help them establish a network of peers and established scientists that will be their associates, collaborators, mentors, and friends. To help them connect with people that will help them be great. As they learn to ask good questions our own competency grows as well. It's like drafting in NASCAR (I’m showing my colors here). Those we dedicate time to work with, encourage, and push, or even sometimes drag kicking and screaming, gather speed and we fling them forward with confidence that the skills they've acquired and those they'll learn navigating the mix will serve them well, enable them to be “great somethings”, make us proud, challenge us, and make us better.


SNA and SETAC commit a lot of resources to this goal.  In fact, two of SNA’s Core Challenges in its Long Range Plan are, in shorthand:  To be the environmental society of choice in North America - that is, our members like being members and non-members wish they were members and To be the go-to society in North America for environmental sciences expertise - that those looking for expertise to help solve environmental problems think of SNA first.  The SNA Board of Directors (BOD) has asked a good question to themselves and you, the members of SNA.  What can we do, as a Society, to meet these challenges? And great ideas have been coming back and are being acted on.  


Most recently the SNA BOD, the Chemistry Advisory Group, the SNA Membership Committee, SETAC Europe, and SETAC World Council all contributed financially or committed resources or expertise to support the Young Environmental Scientists (YES) conference being held in Serbia in March.  YES is a science convention put on by students for students.  There is no cost to students to attend the annual meeting; all expenses are covered by the fund raising of the organizing committee (also made up of students).  The students spend the week not only sharing their research but also taking soft-skills classes and networking.  Next year YES will be held in the North America for the first time and the members of SNA’s NASAC (North American Student Advisory Council) started organizing for the event over a year ago.


For the last several years the SNA Career Development Committee and the Membership Committee have been matching first time annual meeting attendees with veteran participants through the Buddy Program.  Remember how overwhelmed you felt at your first 3,000 person annual meeting.  Buddies help first time attendees navigate the meeting, make introductions to their network of investigators and mentors, encourage them to participate in Advisory Group and Committee Meetings, and provide general mentorship to help with platform and poster presentations at the meeting, career direction, and critical thinking.  The Buddy Program has been so successful we often have to double up to make sure all of the interested first time attendees get a Buddy.  The Program was picked-up by SETAC Europe last May in Basel with the same success.


Recently, each SNA member received an email from Alan Samel, Chair of the SNA Science Committee, asking you to update your profile on the SETAC website.  Why?  For several reasons, but most recently because as part of our effort to provide opportunities for SNA members to get their expertise recognized, we have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Strategic Science Group (SSG) out of the US Geological Survey (USGS) and Department of Interior (DOI).  As part of the SSG, SNA will work with our membership to find experts within our ranks to respond to request for science support during natural disasters, environmental emergencies, development of expert testimony, and other similar activities. If your profile isn’t accurate, we can’t put you in touch with those who are looking for your expertise.


Keep asking good questions of yourself, your students, your mentors, of SNA and SETAC.  I’ll keep trying to do the same myself and with your SNA BOD.  I truly want to see that each of us, and SNA, are on track to become “great somethings”.





Trish Gurva. 2014. “The art of entrepreneurship.” Science. Vol. 346, Issue 6213, Pg 1146. November 28, 2014.

Tags:  Decision Making  Mentoring  SETAC-NA President 

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