They wear goggles that make them look like bugs and cover their bodies in white coats. The words they use can confuse the average person, and even the mundane list of chemicals on the back of your shampoo bottle sounds scary – things like Methylisothiazolinone and Polyquaternium-10.
This mystery surrounding scientists means they are generally out of the mainstream limelight until someone discovers a new species, announces a species is threatened, or makes progress on a well-known disease.
But the thought processes going on behind the scenes of a scientist’s work can be just as valuable to the general public as their discoveries; it speaks to our own problem solving and learning.
“Many people think (science is) just about geeks discovering things on their own,” says biochemist Dr Marc Creus from the University of Basel in Switzerland.
“Our job is not only to give answers but to come up with questions.”
Creus is part of the Global Young Academy, which has held a conference over the past week in Joburg.
The organisation aims to be a voice for, and encourage debate among, young scientists around the world.
This week about 100 brains from numerous countries have been trying to reach out to South Africans and share a little of their expertise.
“We take the view that science is important and should be taught properly, and not just to scientists,” says Creus.
He relates how a teacher can teach five-year-olds about plant growth by making them run around outside with socks on. When they come back to the classroom they collect what they picked up from their feet and the teacher asks them to identify seeds in all the muck. She also asks how they could test that what they have identified as seeds, are actually seeds.
“After a while even a five- year-old will come to the conclusion that you can plant them and see if they grow…
“You need a creative teacher who will not just tell children “You need to learn this”, but will engage them in playful learning.
“This question-based and logical approach to learning follows the same pattern a scientist would use in structuring experiments. If you find something out yourself, you pay more attention,” insists Creus.
He and his team attempt to reverse the process of the evolution of bacteria and find out where the enzymes that create this come from. This research also provides an increased understanding of the rules of evolution.