February 27, 2014

WHAT’S UP, DOC?: The Scientist Out of Its Natural Habitat

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By Brittany Carson

Glasses? Check. Dental apparatus? Check. College t-shirt? Check. I have the uniform to dress like a stereotypical nerd, but I live in Manhattan, so these things never leave my tiny apartment.

What does it mean to be a nerd when you live in New York City? This is a city where everyone is beautiful and successful, a city full of models, business people and movie stars who are dressed to the nines. How does one fit in this world as a scientist? We spend most of our waking hours in cell culture or surrounded by hazardous chemicals, and so naturally our preferred wardrobe is comfortable and inexpensive. But is this appropriate for a New Yorker in the workplace? To me, the bleach stains on my clothes are like battle scars, reminders of how I have fought through this Ph.D., but somehow this proof of my passion is unappreciated in this city.

Walking down Madison Avenue, you make eye contact with someone passing by — you eye their beautiful couture outfit and designer Italian shoes and breathe deeply in order to inhale their perfume as they pass. Sadly, they spot your jeans, your bleach-stained t-shirt and the only aroma you can offer is the formaldehyde you used to preserve your neural/cancer/muscle/cells just an hour ago.

I’m no stranger to city life, but NYC is a whole new ball game where you are a small fish — not in a big pond, but in an overpopulated lake. Can you choose to be a dull catfish when you are surrounded by beautiful sunfish? And, more importantly, would you?

By now, I’m sure that some of you are understandably outraged. Science is about intellectual contribution and sacrifice, not about how one chooses to dress and style themselves. But is that really true? Science is also a business, and in that sense, all of us are judged by the image we put forth.In a world like NYC, where the average outfit requires a stylist and a high-limit credit card, is it alone sufficient to be an intellectual, or does the city require a certain level of attention to personal presentation?

 If you are stylish, does it mean that you are less of an intellectual or less rational?

Lest we forget, fashion on its own is a field of study. Working towards earning a Ph.D. is a time in your life to enrich yourself, including the development of your own academic capacity, so why not study style and fashion as well? Fashion is certainly a discipline that has its own history and social influence. Are we too quick to ignore or depreciate it, since it seems to be less intellectually stimulating than science? Is that really true, or are we just using this reasoning as an excuse?

If you think about it, fashion and style are actually manifestations of a science — psychology. Not only are you communicating your personality to the world, but you are also being judged by the receiver. It is an interaction as fundamental as stimulus and response, or in my laboratory pursuits, growth factor addition and cell proliferation. The way we style ourselves transmits information to our surroundings, which is then received, processed and, finally, responded to. However, in NYC, the receiver is routinely exposed to classy attire and “fashionistas,” and therefore has a much higher threshold for excitement and appreciation.

Furthermore, dressing well and styling yourself can be a confidence-builder. It helps to not only establish one’s sense of self and identity, but also summon the necessary confidence to display an individual’s other attributes to the world. There are so many different styles and fashion trends out there; the one you choose to identify with is a manifestation of your character. How often does somebody look in the mirror and say, “I wish I were in sweatpants instead?” Or, “I feel less intrepid and secure in this beautiful dress and heels?”

So, why not make full use of your enrichment in NYC by developing your own style? Not only do you have living mannequins walking down the street that you can practically shop off (people love it when you compliment their outfits and ask where they are from), but you also have the unique fashion liberty that this city allows — and, trust me, everything goes. Of course, not every outfit may be well-received — I have yet to ignite the labcoat and shorts movement, but I am working on it. Still, it’s a great place to experiment and find out what looks good on you and what you like.

So, can you really exist in NYC as a scientist without dressing well? Better yet, would you want to? I’m quite happy to be making new discoveries in science and in style.

Brittany Carson is a final year graduate student at Weill Cornell Medical College. She may be reached at bbc2001@med.cornell.edu. What’s Up, Doc? appears alternate Fridays this semester.