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What is a Scientist

People who use a systematic approach to gain knowledge.

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License: CC BY-NC 3.0

What is a scientist?

It could be said that a scientist is someone who uses a systematic approach to acquire new knowledge. A scientist can also be defined as someone who uses the scientific method. A scientist may be an expert in one or more areas of science, such as biology, or more specifically biochemistry, genetics or ecology. Regardless of the specialty of the scientist, a common factor that unites all scientists is that they perform research to work towards a more comprehensive understanding of nature.

What Is a Scientist?

Science and Society

Biology literally means "the study of life." It is also a science that is consistently used in our everyday lives. Biology is a very broad field, covering topics from the intricate workings of chemical processes inside our cells, to the more broad concepts of ecosystems and global climate change. Biologists study minute details of the human brain, the make up of our genes, and even the functioning of our reproductive system. For example, biologists recently finished decoding the human genome, the sequence of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) bases that may determine much of our abilities and predispositions for certain illnesses and can also play a major role in many court cases. For example, criminals have been caught, victims identified, and wrongly imprisoned people have been freed based on DNA evidence.

We are constantly being blitzed with headlines about possible health risks from certain foods as well as possible benefits of eating other foods. Commercials try to sell us the latest “miracle” pill for easy, fast weight loss. Most people may choose the conventional medications that can be bought at the pharmacy. However, many people are turning to herbal remedies to ease arthritis pain, improve memory, as well as improve their mood. It is important to know the effects that such supplements, such as the ones shown in Figure below, and medications can have on the body.

Credit: Steven Depolo
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/7315153342/
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Nutritional supplements. Understanding how your body works and how nutrients work will help you decide whether you need to take a nutritional supplement. It will also help you make sense of the large amount of information available about regular medicines, if and when you need to take them.[Figure2]

Can just one biology course give you the answers to these everyday questions? No, but it can assist you in learning how to sift through the biases of investigators, the press, and others in a quest to critically evaluate the question. It is doubtful you would remember all the details of metabolism, neither are they necessarily very pertinent. However, in participating in a biology course, you will learn to become a critical thinker. Knowing about the process of science will also allow you to make a more informed decision. Will you be a scientist? Yes, in a way. You may not be formally trained as a scientist, but you will be able to think critically, solve problems, have some idea about what science can and cannot do, and you will also have an understanding of the role of biology in your everyday life.

Biology and You

So why should you study biology? Because you are surrounded by it every day! It is about what happens in your brain as you read the words on this page, and about how hippopotamuses know to come up to the surface to breathe even while sleeping. Biology covers topics from the reason why a person with hook worms doesn't sneeze as much, to why Velcro works. From understanding the benefits of the vitamin-enriched milk or juice that you have at breakfast, to discerning commercials that promise a fuller head of hair, to snack foods that announce they are the "healthier option for you," you cannot be fully informed about such claims unless you understand the science behind them, or can think like a scientist to analyze them. For example, you would need to know the types of fats you need to get from your food to know why eating salmon, or other foods such as flax seeds and kiwi fruit may be good for your health.

Credit: Maggie Hoffman
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/maggiejane/3359690235/
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Salmon has recently been touted as “super-brain food,” but do you know why it is so good for you? Educating yourself on how science affects your life is important. It will help you better analyze the validity of such claims, help you take better care of your health, and be a wiser healthcare consumer.[Figure3]

You may also become a stronger advocate for your community. For example, if a tree planting initiative has begun in your neighborhood, you can investigate the plan for your area and find out what you can do. You could then explain what the program is about to your friends and family.

Or, perhaps a city park has fallen into disrepair, and city officials are looking for feedback from the public about what to do with it. You could use scientific thinking to analyze the issue and options, and develop possible solutions.

What Is a Scientist?

What exactly makes a person a scientist and what is their role in society? First, we should start with what scientists are not. They are not crazed geniuses with bad hair and a fondness for hysterical laughter, as the Figure below might suggest. Although they may not be on the cutting edge of fashion, they are regular people. They went to school like you, they studied math, reading, and science like you, and they probably exhibited at science fairs, just like the students in the Figure below.

Credit: Mad scientist: Image copyright Art Prestige studio, 2013; Students: George Jumara/US Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District; No and Yes icons: Pixabay:OpenClips
Source: Mad scientist: http://www.shutterstock.com; Students: http://www.flickr.com/photos/savannahcorps/6916922975/; No icon: http://pixabay.com/en/abort-delete-cancel-icon-cross-no-146072/; Yes icon: http://pixabay.com/en/approved-button-check-green-round-151676/
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Spot the Scientist. (a) An example of what scientists are not. (b) Real-life young scientists at an exhibition where they are presenting their research.[Figure4]

Being a scientist does not require you to learn everything in these over 500 concepts or any other science book by heart, but understanding the important concepts does helps. Instead, being a scientist begins by thinking like a scientist. Scientists are curious about how the world works; they have many questions and go about answering those questions using the scientific methods.

If you are fascinated by how things work and why they work a certain way, you too could become a scientist! Research scientists are the people that do the investigations and make the discoveries that you read or hear about. To work as a research scientist, a person usually needs an advanced degree in science. An advanced degree is obtained by attending graduate school after getting a Bachelor of Science, Engineering, or Arts degree. A Bachelor degree normally takes four years to complete, a graduate Masters degrees usually take two years and a graduate Doctorate degree takes four or more years to complete.

Scientific research offers much more to a person than just discovering new things. Researchers have the opportunity to meet with other people (scientists and non-scientists) who care about the same subjects that the scientists research such as cancer research, marine ecology, or human nutrition. Many researchers also teach students who will become the next generation of scientists. Scientists have many opportunities to work with different people, explore new fields, and broaden their expertise.

Scientists are part of a community that is based on ideals of trust and freedom, and their work can have a direct effect on society. As a result, the public usually has an interest in the results of research that will directly affect them. Therefore it is important that you can understand the meaning of a story about science when you read it, see it, or hear about it and become an engaged and active member of the public when making decisions involving science.

Science As a Human Endeavor

Conducting science requires part human creativity and part scientific skepticism. Researchers make new observations and develop new ideas with the aim of describing the world more accurately or completely. These observations and ideas are often based on existing theories and observations that were made by earlier scientists.

The history of molecular biology, for example, is the study of molecules that make up living things, and is a good example of how scientific knowledge builds on earlier knowledge.

Researchers from chemistry and physics were involved in the early investigations to discover what was responsible for heredity. Scientists in the late 19th and early 20th century knew that organisms inherited certain characteristics such as hair color from their parents. What we now call "genes" were then called “units of heredity.” However at the time, scientists did not know exactly how these heredity units were inherited or what they were made of. Following the development of the Mendelian theory of heredity in the 1910s and the development of atomic theory and quantum mechanics in the 1920s, such explanations began to seem within reach. Researchers from chemistry and physics turned their attention to this biological question. Still, in the 1930s and 1940s it was not clear which, if any, area of research would be most successful.

In 1940, geneticists George Beadle and Edward Tatum demonstrated a relationship between genes and proteins. In 1944, physician and researcher Oswald Avery further elaborated on that finding by demonstrating that genes are made up of DNA. In 1952, geneticist Alfred Hershey and lab assistant Martha Chase confirmed that the genetic material of a virus that infects bacteria is made up of DNA. And in 1953, biologist James Watson and biophysicist Francis Crick, with the help of X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, worked out the three dimensional structure of DNA and built a model of the double helix structure of the molecule.

There have been many additional discoveries about DNA and heredity since then, which will be discussed in additional concepts.

Influences on Scientific Research

To nonscientists, the competition, frustration, cooperation, and disagreement between research scientists can seem disorganized. Scientific knowledge develops from humans trying to figure things out. Scientific research and discoveries are carried out by people—people who have virtues, values, shortcomings, and limitations—just like everyone else. As a result, science and research can be influenced by the values of the society in which the research is carried out. How do such values influence research?

This question is of interest to more than just the scientific community. Science is becoming a larger part of everyone’s life, from developing more effective medicines, to developing more productive crops, and to designing innovative air conditioning systems that are modeled after the self-cooling nests of termites. The public has become more interested in learning more about the areas of science that affect everyday life. As a result, scientists have become more accountable to a society that expects to benefit from their work.

It costs money to carry out scientific studies. Things such as the cost of equipment, transportation, rent, and salaries for the people carrying out the research all need to be considered before a study can begin. The systems of financial support for scientists and their work have been important influences of the type of research and the pace of how that research is conducted. Today, funding for research comes from many different sources, some of which include:

  • government, for example, through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA),
  • military funding, such as through the Department of Defense,
  • corporate sponsorship,
  • non-profit organizations, such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the American Cancer Society and American Heart Association,
  • private donors.

When the economy of a country slows down, the amount of money available for funding research is usually reduced, because both governments and businesses try to save funds by reducing certain non-essential expenses.

Many pharmaceutical companies are heavily invested in research and development, on which they spend many millions of dollars every year. The companies aim to research and develop drugs that can be marketed and sold to treat certain illnesses, such as diabetes, cancer, or heart disease. Areas of research in which the companies do not see any hope of a return on their huge investments are not likely to be studied.

For example, two researchers, Evangelos Michelakis and Steven Archer of the University of Alberta, Canada, recently reported that a drug that has been used for in the treatment of rare metabolic disorders could be an effective drug for the treatment of several forms of cancer. Dichloroacetic acid, (DCA), is a chemical compound that appears to change the way cancer cells get energy, without affecting the function of normal cells. The researchers found that DCA killed cancer cells that were grown in the lab and reduced the size of tumors in rats.

However, DCA is non-patentable as a compound. A patent is a set of rights granted to a person or company (the patentee) for a certain period of time which allows the patentee the exclusive right to make, use, sell, or offer to sell the patented item. Because DCA cannot currently be patented, concerns are raised that without the financial security a patent would ensure, the financial incentive for the pharmaceutical industry to get involved in DCA-cancer research would be reduced, and therefore clinical trials of DCA may not be funded.

But, other sources of funding exist-- previous studies of DCA have been funded by government organizations such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and by private charities such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Recognizing the possible challenges to funding, Dr. Michelakis's lab took the unusual step of directly asking for online donations to fund the research. After six months, his lab had raised over $800,000, which was enough to fund a small clinical study. Dr. Michelakis and Dr. Archer have since applied for a patent on the use of DCA in the treatment of cancer.

Funding for research can also be influenced by the public and by social issues. An intense amount of public interest was raised by the DCA study. The story received much media attention in early 2007. As a result, the American Cancer Society and other medical organizations received a large volume of public interest and questions regarding DCA. A few months later, the Department of Medicine of Alberta University reported that after the trial funding was secured, both the Alberta local ethics committee and Health Canada approved the first DCA Clinical Trial in Cancer.

Government funding of research can be indirectly influenced by the public. Funding priorities for specific research can be influenced by the ethical beliefs or reservations of elected public officials, or influenced by the public during constitutional amendment elections. Celebrities often campaign to bring public attention to issues that are important to them.

Science and Ethics

Ethics, also called moral philosophy, is the discipline concerned with what is morally good and bad, right and wrong. The term is also applied to any system or theory of moral values or principles. Personal ethics is the moral code that a person adheres to, while social ethics includes the moral theory that is applied to groups. Bioethics is the social ethics of biology and medicine; it deals with the ethical implications of biological research and applications, especially in medicine. Bioethicists are concerned with the ethical questions that arise in the relationships among biology, biotechnology, medicine, politics, law, and philosophy.

While scientific research has produced social benefits, it has also posed some troubling ethical questions. For example, when is it alright to test an experimental cancer drug on people? Developing a new drug takes a long time, maybe as much as 10 years, or more. There are many rules and regulations that drug researchers need to follow while developing drugs to treat specific illnesses.

Generally, drugs cannot be tested on people until researchers have evidence that the drug does what they claim it does, but also that the drug will not make patients more ill or cause death. However, if the drug has tested successfully in earlier experiments, and scientists are quite confident that the drug does what it is intended to do, is it ethical to allow patients with a terminal disease, who have no other treatment options, to try the experimental drug?

With new challenges in public health and health policy arising quickly, and with advances in biotechnology being made, bioethics is a fast-growing academic and professional area of inquiry. Some recent bioethical debates include:

  • Refusal of medical treatment: the choice of a patient to refuse certain life-saving medical procedures such as a blood transfusion, or refusal by a parent or guardian for medical treatment for the patient.
  • Euthanasia: the choice by a terminally ill person to have medical assistance in dying.
  • Stem cell research: research involving stem cells, which can be harvested from human embryos.
  • Animal cloning: the ability and usefulness of scientists cloning animals for various needs, such as vaccine development, tissues for transplant into humans such as heart valves, and increased food production. Dolly the sheep, probably the most famous animal clone to date, is shown in Figure below.

Credit: Colin and Sarah Northway
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/46174988@N00/4822043093/
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Dolly the sheep is seen here on display in the National museum of Scotland. In 1997, Dolly was the first mammal to be cloned, and quickly became world-famous. She was euthanized in 2003 after she developed a common, but serious lung disease. To “grow” her, researchers at the Roslin Institute in Scotland, collected DNA from a mammary cell of another sheep (technically her (older) twin sister), and then injected the DNA into a stem cell which had its own DNA removed. That stem cell then developed into an embryo.[Figure5]

Because research may have a great effect on the well-being of individual people and society in general, scientists are required to behave ethically. Scientists who conduct themselves ethically treat people (called subjects) who are involved in their research respectfully. Subjects are not allowed to be exploited deliberately, exposed to harm, or forced to do something they do not agree to.


  • Biology is the study of life.
  • Scientists are regular people who chose to study science. They are experts in done or more fields of science.
  • Science can be influenced by numerous agencies and organizations.
  • Ethics has a significant role in the science of today.


  1. What is a scientist?
  2. What would a molecular biologist study?
  3. List three potential influences on science.
  4. Where does most funding for research come from in the United States?
  5. Discuss the role of ethics in science.

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  1. What aspects of science do the actors and scientists in this video discuss?
  2. According to this video, what is a main goal of science?

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Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: Steven Depolo; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/7315153342/; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  3. [3]^ Credit: Maggie Hoffman; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/maggiejane/3359690235/; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  4. [4]^ Credit: Mad scientist: Image copyright Art Prestige studio, 2013; Students: George Jumara/US Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District; No and Yes icons: Pixabay:OpenClips; Source: Mad scientist: http://www.shutterstock.com; Students: http://www.flickr.com/photos/savannahcorps/6916922975/; No icon: http://pixabay.com/en/abort-delete-cancel-icon-cross-no-146072/; Yes icon: http://pixabay.com/en/approved-button-check-green-round-151676/; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  5. [5]^ Credit: Colin and Sarah Northway; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/46174988@N00/4822043093/; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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