• Question: Do you find the students ask questions outside your area of expertise? If so, what are best practices to handle that?

    Asked by katieeprater to Andrew, Lindsay, Paige, Sean, Jeff on 13 Feb 2016.
    • Photo: Andrew Maynard

      Andrew Maynard answered on 13 Feb 2016:

      All the time!

      I found honesty and affirmation to be the best approach – along the lines of “cool question, I have no idea what the answer is, but I wonder how we’d go about finding out …’ – this collaborative approach really helped strengthen connections and open up conversations – the students actually became collaborators in thinking about how to go about discovering new stuff.

      I’m not sure I ever came across a situation where admitting not knowing an answer decreased respect – in most cases it increased respect and engagement.

      I’d be interested in what the others found.

      (another strategy was to suggest one of the other scientists might know the answer)

    • Photo: Paige Brown Jarreau

      Paige Brown Jarreau answered on 13 Feb 2016:

      They ALWAYS asked questions beyond my expertise lol. But the questions were generally really broad, or they were something that I could look up online and develop some type of answer for. But they also asked a lot of more personal “life of scientist” questions, which are always fun, and other non-technical questions. I wouldn’t worry so much about answering their questions technically as answering to the best of your ability in a way that inspires the student to want to learn more.

    • Photo: Lindsay Hunter

      Lindsay Hunter answered on 13 Feb 2016:

      As I’ve said, I’m a paleoanthropologist with a narrow specialty (Neandertal rib anatomy), so I find myself feeling a bit like an antiquarian at times (you know, absurdly focused on Victorian buttons from 1904-5, but unable to speak to those manufactured before or after). Fortunately, my training has been broad, and “paraphrasing some Roman or other, we anthropologists say: Primatus sum, nihil primatum mihi alienum puto, which, being translated, is ‘I am a primate, nothing is outside of my bailiwick'” (Earnest Hooton, 1955). I do try to acknowledge my lack of expertise, but still offer my two cents or suggest where they might find a better answer. Sometimes, the search for the answer (after a nudge in the right direction) is really the best way for someone to learn. Not only do they remember better, but they are able to discover more answers for themselves using the same process.

    • Photo: Sean Murphy

      Sean Murphy answered on 13 Feb 2016:

      Yes quite often. However being a scientist is all about asking questions with no current answers! The best way to handle this is to provide students (and myself) with the skills to start to discover these answers for themselves. Teaching others how to start answering these questions is the most important part of educating the next generation of scientists.

    • Photo: Jeff Shi

      Jeff Shi answered on 13 Feb 2016:

      Because what I actually study – evolutionary biology, and specifically macroevolution – is generally outside the realm of most perspectives on science and biology, I find myself generally fielding questions that are rather far afield from what I study. In fact, the vast majority of questions I answer seem only related to me because they involve bats! I get disease ecology, conservation, epidemiology, behavior, and general ecology questions all the time!

      Because I expect it, though, I make sure to really delve into many aspects of bat natural history that I normally don’t focus on for my research – I think it’s helped me become a better scientist overall. More importantly, I think I’ve had to develop the ability to admit my own holes in knowledge, and in my experience audiences love hearing me speculate just as much as they like hearing the “right” answer. It’s a good way to demonstrate how scientists think and speculate about complex issues, and how hypotheses (including very testable ones!) are formulated on the spot based on prior knowledge.