The most common comment I receive from people after a comedy gig is “you're so brave!" I would much prefer “you're so funny!", but I suppose you can't always get what you want. The truth is that I've never considered myself to be either particularly brave or funny. And yet I often find myself doing things that require both in abundance.
But it's not just me who suffers from this cognitive dissonance; I believe most of us are braver (but perhaps less funny...) than we realise.
Let me explain.
After I performed in a Cancer Research UK comedy gala at the Crick earlier this year, I received some very lovely feedback from a few colleagues, many of whom mentioned my apparent 'bravery'.
As I headed back to the lab to grab my things that same night, one scientist approached me in the lobby to tell me I must have superhuman powers to have done what I did (I'm paraphrasing here for effect). I told them it's just like giving a scientific talk; surely they must be used to being brave in the face of this similarly daunting task?
"It's not the same", they countered, while heading towards the stairs. I wasn't brave enough to make the upward trek myself, and so our conversation ended in the lobby as I waited for a lift.
What bothers me is when people so generously call what they see in me bravery, when they cannot see it in themselves. It doesn’t feel like bravery to me, but necessity that pushes me; a need to express myself on stage with a microphone, because it is the only way I know to get my message across. I sometimes think it’s the only time that people will listen to me. (PhD students giving first year talks may find this feeling familiar.)
So why can’t my colleagues see themselves doing the same thing every day - or at least every time they have to give a seminar?
The bravery in science
I remember a conversation I once had backstage with a seasoned comedian when I first started doing stand-up. They asked me if I was any good. I wasn’t sure if this was a trick question, so I just said that I didn’t know, because it was only my third gig. He said, “well, if you’re still doing comedy after your first gig then you must be alright. Or you enjoy it enough to not mind bombing.”
I think about this conversation every time a student tells me they want to do a Masters, or a Masters student is thinking of applying to do a PhD, or a PhD student tells me they want to do a postdoc, or... you get the picture. If you still want to do science after your first ever Western blot, scientific presentation or rejection letter, then I think that’s pretty brave too.
Choosing the life of a scientist requires ongoing feats of bravery. Science careers often require moves to new cities or countries, and all the difficulties that come with that. If you don’t come from an academically-inclined upbringing, you may face a lifetime of family members asking when you might ‘get a real job’. Being a scientist means constantly presenting your work and asking for it to be debated. Those things don’t feel any less brave than standing on a comedy stage.
I would argue that it is bravery that keeps scientists going toward the light when everything else around them seems dark and murky, including their latest Western blot. (Which is not to say that those who choose to leave science are somehow cowards – our industry is not without its challenges or issues. Truly knowing yourself, what is possible, and what you want, and following that path is one of the bravest things you can do.)
Using bravery for good
But I’ll go one step further. Unrecognised bravery is bad enough, but what bothers me even more is untapped potential. It is only once we recognise this bravery in ourselves, and the amazingly privileged positions we hold as scientists, that we realise we have more power than we think.
We are living in an immensely worrying time. The future of science, and the world, is more uncertain than ever. We are in uniquely powerful positions, not just as scientists, but with the connections we have (or can easily foster) with other universities, public organisations and government.
Despite what a lot of people might say, there are still many who look up to us, as scientists, as intellectuals, as people who are paid to think deeply about the problems humankind is facing.
Doing things like persevering with our Western blots is vital to our research, but I think we should apply some of our bravery to shouldering some of the more civic responsibilities we have, whether we like it or not, with the great powers we have been afforded.
This means not just engaging with the public (and each other) on a scientific level by talking about our research, but a personal and political one as well. No scientist is an island, and science is not practiced apart from the world, as much as some of us might like to do it in peace. It has been very encouraging to see scientists motivated to action by Brexit, and I would love to see their engagement spill over to other issues as well.
I try (often in vain) to do that through comedy, speaking about issues like politics and immigration, science and technology (both as exciting fields but as careers we have to navigate through), as well as dating and relationships (because all comedians need their own unique take on Tinder), from a perspective that audiences may not often get to hear.
Others might do it with other forms of public speaking, social media or building relationships with the people who make policy.
So when people tell me “you’re so brave” for doing comedy, what I often think they really mean is “I wish I could be brave too”. The truth is, they already are. The sooner we recognise that, the sooner we can put that bravery into action, at the Crick and beyond.