Other Question #913

Stephenie, a 13 year old female from cedarbrook middle school asks on September 11, 2002,

In our science class we are doing a project about stereotyping scientists. We want to see if the stereotype is true and ask you some questions about your self. The reason why were doing this project is because a lot of people in our science class think of scientists as wearing big glasses, lab coats, having crazy hair, and being pretty old. One of the questions we would like to ask you first is what do you look like? Where do you work? How long have you been working as a scientist and do you like your job? At your job do you wear a lab coat 24/7? Do you work with other people or do you work alone? What type of scientist are you, chemist, professor, etc? Do you have any hobbies? What high school and college (’s) did you go to? When did you know that you wanted to become a scientist? How would you describe your self? Do you enjoy your pay?

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The answer

Barry Shell answered on September 13, 2002

This answer is from a fictitious scientist based on many real scientists working today:

I am a pretty good looking guy, average height, dark hair, in my thirties, married, just had our first child. I work at Simon Fraser University. If you include all the years I "worked on" science at university then I've been working as a scientist for about ten years--two of those in my present job as an assistant professor. I really like my job. I rarely wear a labcoat, but sometimes I do wear one just to protect my clothes in the lab. I work with lots of other people. I have my students, my lab assistants, fellow professors, and a lot of other support people such as technicians and secretaries that help me do my work. I am a professor of physics in a university. One of my hobbies is bicycling and at one time I was in competitive road races. I went to high school in a town near San Francisco. I knew I wanted to be a scientist when I experienced the cool "toys" we were allowed to "play with" in university physics laboratories. I don't make a lot of money but I make enough to have a very comfortable life with my family. The thing I like about my job is that I have the freedom to investigate anything I want, and go in new directions to discover totally new things that nobody has ever known before.

Harry Murphy, New Mexico answered on March 30, 2006

I am a retired physicist whose specialty was nuclear radiation dosimetry (measuring radiation doses). I am 74 years old, pretty bald and i wear glasses. I was born in Presque Isle, Maine, about 11 miles west of the border with New Brunswick. I went to high schools in Presque Isle, Orono and Brewer, Maine. I graduated with a BS in Engineering Physics from the University of Maine in Orono in 1953.

I worked at the Army Signal Corps Laboratories until 1960 and then at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory until I retired. I used to wear a lab coat sometimes to protect my clothes, but it wsas pretty rare for me to do so. I considered myself a "dirty hands physicist", as opposed to theoretical physicists. I designed and built my own appratus and used it to measure both high-level and low-level radioactivity, including the radioactivity of people.

When I graduated from the University, I was interviewed by recruiters from several companies, including Raytheon, DuPont, RCA and the Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories (SCEL). Although the Signal Corps offered the lowest salary, $3,400 per annum, they promised me that I would be assigned to the Nucleonics Section and I accepted their offer. I've never regretted it. By the time I retired in 1986, I was a GS-14 employee with a quite comfortable salary.

While I was at SCEL, I participated in Operation TEAPOT in 1955 and Operation PLUMBBOB in 1957 where we tested army radiation dosimeters by exposing them to radiation from nuclear detonations. We would place them in blast-proof stations at measured distances from ground zero and then, about four hours after the detonation, recover them and take them back to our laboratory at Base Camp and record the results. I witnessed some 15 such detonations and participated in 11 of them.

Working with Dr. Stanley Kronenberg, we tested some experimental radiation sensors called SEMIRAD by exposing them the intense radiation pulses from Godiva-II, a bare critical nuclear reactor at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. I decided that I preferred the climate here in New Mexico to that of SCEL in New Jersey and transferred to the Air Force Special Weapons Center (AFSWC) at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque. AFSWC later became the Air Force Weapons Laboratory (AFWL) from which I retired in 1986.

While at AFWL, I provided dosimetric support to experiments involving exposure of large animals (sheep) to x-rays, to gamma radiation and to pulsed neutron bursts from another bare critical reactor. I also developed a computer program to analyze pulses from a scintillator detector used to measure the radioactivity of people. And I developed computer programs to calculate prompt nuclear radiation doses from atmospheric detonations.

Before I close, I want to say that there is a secret about Science. That secret is: SCIENCE IS FUN! You may work hard and you may get dirty and your experiments may fail, but -- in the long run -- Science is Fun! There is a joy in discovering something new or in finding a new way to do or measure something that makes up for all the hard work. The money is good, but the real reward is in doing the science.

I have always felt a soft spot for Canada and things Canadian. When I was a kid, Mother would bundle my sister and me in our car and drive down to the old family farm in Elgin, NB, where we would spend our summer playing in the fields, the barns and wading in the Pollett River. It was there I learned to sing, Oh Canada!

Yes, I worked with other people. We were not very formal; short sleeve shirts were common, neckties were not. My hobby is 35-mm photography and family history. I read Stephen King and I enjoy music by Enya. I now do one-on-one reading to hospitalized kids at University Hospital.

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