Safety goggles, white lab coat, long hours and exploding chemicals – that´s how we imagine the traditional scientist. And although all of that might be true, in the 21st century scientists have to be much more than that. The era of change is here and it presents the scholar with way more opportunities than just the newest model microscope.
Rebekah Scheuerle is a doing her PhD in chemical engineering in the University of Cambridge. Since she began research on a medical device that would provide medicine to babies during breastfeeding, she has been as much a businesswoman as a scientist. “We are looking for funding now to start clinical trials, and I need to pitch my idea all the time,” she says.
In this era of innovation, big companies and institutions cherish disruptive ideas more than ever. They support business accelerators and start-up competitions to provide bright minds with a possibility to show the world what they are made of. “Labs have become mini start-up incubators,” Scheuerle says. Scientists are now required not only to research diligently but also to be able to speak on stage and understand development models. “A lot of people wonder if we even possess the necessary communication skills,” Scheuerle says. “I would argue we do. We need to come to terms, though, with the fact that that sometimes a little bit of training is necessary.”
So from where do researchers get that training? “I don’t think you need to go to business school”, says Tamsin Nicholson, a researcher at the University of Glasgow. “You just need to be self-confident and believe in your idea.”
Nicholson admits, though, that some soft skills training would help – and says universities aren’t providing enough of it. “We underestimate how easy it is to acquire any sort of information nowadays,” she says. “But it is only through experience in places like St. Gallen Symposium, where you can present your idea and receive feedback, where we actually develop skills.” And skills were what she needed: At the symposium, Nicholson had to present her idea to an auditorium full of bright young minds and answer thoughtful questions. “We live in times where we can choose our own path,” she says. “No one is telling us which profession to choose. We have to make it on our own and this requires the whole skills package.”