The scientific chat-up
How to lure in the ladies with your PhD (it's got to be good for something)
26 February 2006
As if on cue, Mike makes the lemming-like suicidal leap from the precipice of true love and says: ‘I’m in graduate school. Studying physics.’
I think most people would agree you need to have something outside of work. A hobby, an interest, a pastime. Even if you’re a scientist. I have a couple, but my main squeeze, you might say, is playing drums. I play in a rock band here in Memphis, and I’ve played in bands all over the States and in a few in the UK too. In fact I wanted to be a drummer before I wanted to be a scientist. And if that’s not the saddest, most downright geekiest thing you’ve ever heard, read on!
So one night a while back, my buddy Mike and I are sitting in a bar in Baltimore, enjoying a few beers before our friends’ band takes the stage. Mike is not only my good chum, but he is also a bass player, and at the time, we were playing in a band together. Needless to say, as two single, cool rock-star-in-the-making dudes on the prowl, we’re scoping out the crowd for victims…ahem, I mean targets…or rather, young ladies to engage in conversation.
Anyway, like most blokes, it takes us a few bottles of Dutch Courage to help summon up the nerve needed to just go and say hello to someone. Finally – thankfully – we spot a group of Baltimore’s finest young rockettes sitting in a booth. Wait a couple of minutes…no….no obvious boyfriends or male hangers on to compete with. Yet. Go!
Leading the way, with my chin held high, steadying myself for the almost inevitable humiliation awaiting, I stroll casually over and introduce myself and my buddy.
Now I should point out here that I was doing the leading not because I’m some super-studly lady-killer man of the world or anything, but because it is kind of accepted that I am the best point man for our group. The reason is as daft as it is totally brilliant: I am an Englishman abroad. It’s as simple as that. It’s the accent, see? It’s an "innie". You’ve always got to have an innie. For example, my best friend Cowboy Matt has a hat. A big black Stetson cowboy hat. He picked it up while we were pootling around New Mexico. As you do. A little while later he split up with his girlfriend and was back on the market. However, despite being a jolly nice chap, he wasn’t having much luck in the dating game and after a few trips out he was getting pretty despondent. We had a bit of a chat and I asked him about his cowboy hat. He said he didn’t think it was worth taking on a date because he was now in Washington DC, not New Mexico. I pointed out to him that his hat was his innie. (Of course, it was also a substantial investment too, Big Black Stetsons not coming cheap, no matter what you might have been told to the contrary!) Anyway, being Cowboy Matt was his innie. It doesn’t guarantee you anything, but it helps initiate a conversation. After that you’re on your own: if you were a prat before, now you’re a prat with a big black hat. Or with an accent.
Anyway, I digress. We’re in Baltimore, remember? So, I introduce myself to the young ladies and, miracle of miracles, we get invited to join them. The usual odd small talk/Q&A session ensures, and soon the inevitable "So, what do you do for a living?" comes up.
I see Mike flush and hang his head. Don’t do it Mike! I’m thinking. But as if on cue, he makes the lemming-like suicidal leap from the precipice of true love and says: "I’m in graduate school. Studying physics."
A sudden chill descends upon the table. Giggles break out near my left shoulder. All my hard work is slowly coming undone! Why oh why, I think to myself, couldn’t he lie? He’s supposed to say he’s a musician; that’s my line too! I’m the drummer, he’s the bassist, our friends’ band is playing…blah blah blah…hey, wanna hang out with the band tonight? etc. etc. etc.
I’m desperately searching for something witty and off-the-cuff to throw out there, but nothing is springing to mind. Rockette number 3 opposite turns to me, one eyebrow raised in a way that makes you think of the word "sardonic" even if you don’t know what it means. With somewhat of a sneer she asks: "And you…what do you do?".
I panic. I do something I swore to avoid when out drinking with my mates, especially when women were involved. I tell the truth.
"I’m a scientist too, actually," I confess.
As her sneer begins to deepen, something snaps. Damn it! I’ve spent four years, six months and two days in graduate school, I have twenty-four years of solid education under my belt, I have a Dean’s Reference for excellence for my undergraduate thesis! I have successfully written (and got funded) two grants! I am published, by George! I’m not ashamed of this!
"Yes, a scientist," I continue, with a little more pep in my vocal-stride now. "My specialty is neuroscience."
Oh yes. That’s got ‘em. That’s not geeky! That’s cool! Seriously, think about it for a minute. The devil’s in the details, see. "Scientists" are sad geeks with bad hair and no social skills. Ecologists however, are cool as fuck. They’re saving the world, y’know. Pharmacologists can be awesome too. They’re working on saving our lives and helping us live forever. Neuroscientists? Now they freaking rock! How cool is it to do something like that for a living! I study your brain!
The eyebrow drops. The sneer is gone. A sort of questioning curiosity lights her (really very pretty) face. "So, what do you do in neuroscience?"
I instinctively retreat into the sort of vague hand-waving that many of us are guilty of when confronted by a lay audience that has suddenly expressed an interest in where their hard earned tax dollars are going…
"My research has implications for Alzheimer’s disease and stroke prevention," I reply.
This does nothing if not pique their curiosity. And I think it’s a natural curiosity that many of the public have about science. But they’re often taught poorly in school, spoon fed nonsense and pseudoscience by the media, and are finally not engaged enough or too afraid to ask a "real" scientist what certain things really mean.
So, next thing I know, I’m actually chatting away with three beautiful young ladies in bar in Baltimore. And we’re chatting about signal transduction mechanisms and the implications of cerebral ischemia! Not in strict scientific terminology of course, but in decent general terms. I explain about signal transduction by using the band as an example. The signal leaves the guitarist’s hand as he makes the strings vibrate. This is transmitted to the pick-ups in the guitar, and turned into a signal that travels along his cable to his amplifier (or amp, as we rock stars say). There the signal has to be transduced into a sound…
Without going into details that would be inappropriate for a magazine of this caliber, I had a bloody good evening. And both Mike and I learned a valuable lesson that we apply to this day. Don’t be ashamed of what you do, or nervous that no one will understand you. Just learn to express yourself and your work in an engaging way. Try to share the passion you have for your discipline, and you too could get a rock chick in Baltimore to share her passion with you.