The life of a Scientist…lessons learnt from The Big Bang Theory

By Priya Hari, University of Edinburgh

It’s season 11 of The Big Bang Theory – the well-loved comedy showcasing a group of stereotypical nerds (or as I like to think, scientists who are normal people like me and you). The show, based on the social lives physicists, engineers and biologists, is usually a comedic affair, but episode 2 of season 11 went a little beyond that. It highlighted a number of matters that certainly can be related to by a scientist of any discipline. Here I give my view from a biochemist’s perspective on the issues depicted in this episode.

tbbt figure
Characters. Left to Right – Bernadette, Howard, Raj, Penny, Sheldon, Leonard and Amy.

Leonard messes up big time in a radio interview where he was invited to promote his research and the university. As the radio presenter pressured him to reveal exciting new discoveries that are on the horizon, Leonard truthfully said that his research wasn’t going anywhere and suggested donors were wasting their money.

I am very passionate about communicating my work to the public. Working for Cancer Research UK means that our research is heavily funded by donations and thus it is important to then show the public how we are using their money. But I agree with Leonard to some extent. “Scientists should tell the truth.” I never lie; though often find myself glorifying the truth to make my molecular research sound more exciting, as if it really will help us to find a cure for cancer. In reality, my work on how our innate immune system might be protecting us from cancer is never going to make the headlines, but if I am lucky might be a tiny contribution to knowledge that one-day helps an important study. We should steer the public away from the notion that all scientists are working on something ground-breaking.

Sheldon, in a bid to work out what the next big discovery in physics will be, accepts an important realisation – “Not all science pans out.”

As researchers, we spend a lot of time and money coming up with theories and hypotheses and then testing them. I’m not sure what the success rate is, but what I do know is that the percentage of studies that actually lead to the desired outcome is incredibly low. As scientists, we learn to accept failure. Work-related stress is very common in scientists, and in some cases can lead to depression, as was depicted in this episode. It is important in this case to have a good work-life balance and social interactions.

Raj is upset that he is yet to have a stable romantic relationship.

In many fields of science, including mine, it is necessary to work beyond your contracted hours and often having to bring additional work home. This can easily put a strain on your personal relationships or prevent you from building them in the first place. It is OK to say “no” to increasing workload as being unhappy at home will adversely affect your work life, and the opposite is also true. Bernadette and Howard are about to have a second child; I wonder how they will cope now?

Penny lifted the spirits of the group, reminding the boys that “Physics is only dead when we stop getting exciting by it.” She encourages them by highlighting that they are just going through a rough patch and suggests the boys should go for a run (do some form of exercise) or be inspired (by other scientists).

Scientists know they didn’t enter the profession for the money, but are choosing to work on what they are most passionate about. It’s that passion that keeps all fields of science alive.

Amy, on the other hand, is the academic biologist in the group who I can relate to the most. Her focus in this episode was the lack of recognition she was getting from her fiancé, Sheldon, over her successes at work and her fears that he would be jealous.

This somewhat touches upon the Women in Science topic, where there is still a view that women are less successful than men, even though there is ample evidence of the opposite. However, there are some misleading statements made by Amy, such as “Money is thrown at biologists.” I know that that most certainly isn’t true and I’m not sure that any individual scientist owns an fMRI machine! With reagent and equipment costs so extortionate, the money doesn’t go such a long way anyway and if Amy really is onto something with her neuroscience research, we look forward to hearing all about it!

From season one, our nerdy friends have grown up a lot. It may be a comedy series but for a large part depicts many aspects of the life of scientists very well. Let’s see where our favourite characters lives are heading and I might just get an indication of what I’ve got to face!

DSC_1333About Me

I have recently completed a PhD in Molecular and Clinical Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. My research focus in on the study of cellular senescence and its implication in tumour biology, which I am currently still working on as a Research Fellow. I am also a keen science communicator, working on many lab tours and festival-type activities for adults and children. In my spare time, I like to cook and crochet. Follow me @priyahari14.




2 thoughts on “The life of a Scientist…lessons learnt from The Big Bang Theory

  1. Hi, it was so nice to stumble upon your blog. The fact that you are a biochemist, really interests me as I myself want to pursue the field in the future. Frankly, it’s nice to know that the show protrays some truth about the lives of scientists…. Because I would really love living that life. Thank you for this article!

    Liked by 1 person

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