Department of Physics and Astronomy, George Mason University

Raise Your Hand

So you are attending your first conference with an audience of over 100 experts in your field and the conference chair opens the floor for questions. What do you do? Sit there passively waiting for others to ask questions? Can you even formulate a question in your head, or do you sit there like a deer in headlights believing that you are the incompetent imposter who doesn’t belong at the conference?

Science begins by asking questions. And often the best questions are the ones asked by those beginning their careers. For they are the ones who can look at a topic with a fresh set of eyes. They are the ones who have not had years to settle into rigid patterns of thinking, or attachments to ”their” ideas, all of which hinder scientific innovation. So why is it so difficult to ask a question?

Questioning is fundamental to being human. The average 4 year old asks over 100 questions a day. But by the time a child reaches high school, they can barely ask one. Why does this happen? Does the educational system reward answers rather than questions? What role does gender, racial, and ethnic identity play in shaping a person’s attitude toward asking questions?

Research shows that 4 year old girls are the most inquisitive, asking a staggering 390 questions per day according to one study

But something changes.

Women ask significantly fewer questions than men at departmental seminars according to a new study. These are disturbing findings that seriously compromise scientific innovation and productivity.

If you stop asking questions, you are losing one of the most fundamental qualities of being a human being.

And science suffers for it.

So, you want to ask questions but you’re feeling nervous? Here are some tips on cultivating the art of asking questions

1. Prepare questions in advance.

If you’re going to a conference, think of the top 5 questions surrounding the conference theme. Read papers of the presenters prior to attending and jot down a few questions on topics most related to your work. Remember that when formulating a question think critically about the validity and rigor of evidence presented, relevance and meaning of the results to the field as a whole, connection to previous work, and mpact of future instruments on questions posed in the work. Always examine and question every assumption made, and how valid it may be in a variety of physical circumstances. If you are a student in a class, read the material and look at the homework assignment ahead of class. Question all assumptions made in the class, and don’t just accept them. Remember to be mindful of class time, and ask questions that enhance the classroom experience.

2. Make a top 5 list of questions a week.

Train yourself to keep a list of questions each week to discuss with your advisor. In addition to cultivating critical questions on the details of the technical methodology, try to always think fundamentally. Why is this topic important? Is this experimental design the most effective? How is connected with what has been done before?

3. Admit when you don’t know something.

If you are a professor, one of the greatest gifts you can give your students is admitting when you can’t answer a question. Be authentic. Show them how curiosity is fundamental to being human. Show them that science is a collective endeavor that transcends each individual ego.

4. Reward questions.

If you are a professor, work hard to show enthusiasm for questions, and strive to avoid a situation where a single person dominates all the questioning in your classroom. Actively engage your audience by asking them questions. Show excitement when students ask you questions in class. Encourage the most tentative students, and celebrate their achievement of overcoming their discomfort in asking asking questions.

And Remember that…

Remember that this is science. Remember it’s not about you. It’s about the science. Speak the truth. Admit when you don’t know something. Because it is fundamental to being a scientist. Realize that the image or the spectrum you are looking at on that power point slide is a gift from a few photons that travelled millions of years to a detector on the end of a telescope. Let go of your ego. Be humble in the thought that your existence, the existence of every one in the room, is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. We are all part of a collective scientific endeavor.

Remember that you are an ambassador for all that you choose to defines you –  your institution,  your race, your country, your gender identity, your humanity. Remember that you are an ambassador for those who came before you, and a role model to those who come after you. You deserve a seat at the table. Your voice should be heard, and science will be the better for it.

So raise your hand.

“It is not the answer that enlightens but the question.”

-Eugène Ionesco