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Tap Into Your Inner Scientist

Tap Into Your Inner Scientist

By Vignetta Charles, PhD | November 10, 2015
Chief Science Officer, ETR

I’m not only a scientist! People also play me on TV!


Well, actually, that’s Mr. Spock, Chief Science Officer from Star Trek and the starship Enterprise. I’m Vignetta Charles, the new Chief Science Officer at ETR. Which, by the way, has its headquarters on Enterprise Way. Coincidence? I think not.


I embrace the challenge to live up to the esteemed reputation of my job title. Indeed, we all can tap into our inner scientists. And, taking to heart the advice of my Vulcan mentor—“Insufficient facts always invite danger”—I’d like to suggest we all make the effort to be scientists in our work, no matter what our role. 

We All Start out as Scientists

As kids, we start out as scientists, curious about the world and how it works. I see this every day with my four-year-old son. The world is so new to him. He holds the people, things and events around him in a certain kind of awe. He loves being surprised by the world around him. He wants to learn more. I’d like to claim that he gets this from his mama, but I can’t. We’re all born this way.

We all had a spirit of inquiry and discovery when we were young, and it’s still there in each of us. This is what drives us to question when, where, why and how we do things. Somewhere along the way, many of us decide that formal “science” isn’t a path we want to take. But I would argue that none of us ever needs to stop tapping into that spirit in our work.

Scientists at ETR

One of the things I’m loving about my colleagues at ETR is the range of science-based practices they have. We have social scientists who develop interventions designed to reduce risk and improve lives. We have evaluators who disentangle what has and hasn’t worked in programs around the country. We have trainers who infuse the science of learning into every aspect of their work to ensure that all professionals can implement interventions effectively. We have materials and resources that advance the science and translate it into tools that can be put into practice in the field.

These are some of the finest scientists I’ve known! Yet I’m not sure the staff outside our Research & Evaluation group see themselves that way. This made me wonder about the sort of everyday activities and principles people might pursue that could help affirm their inner scientists—whether they view themselves as professional scientists or not.

Science: Deep In the Heart of Me

Here are some things that work for me. Would they boost your own sense of wonder, your commitment to inquiry, your search for the truth, your desire to boldly go where no one has gone before?

  1. Wake up the senses. The most fundamental observations we made when we first came into this world—baby scientists!—came through our senses. These are still powerful in our adult lives.

My senses are stirred by the smell of coffee or the sound of laughter. Simple things can wake up our mind and help us be receptive to inspiration.

  1. Stay curious and open minded. Albert Einstein famously said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”

Einstein may have needed some boosting of his self-esteem, because I believe his talents were exceptional. But the gift of curiosity is not itself special. We come by it naturally as human beings. And we can consciously choose to be curious.

Try it next time you’re at a tedious meeting or on a long bus ride. Find five things to be curious about in that moment. This can be a very engaging activity, and your brain will thank you. Activate yourself further by roping a partner into the game, and see how your five things are similar or different.

  1. Notice the ways you use basic scientific principles in everyday life. Observation, hypothesis, experimentation, measurement. We use these processes in the most mundane daily tasks.

Like…buying groceries and choosing a new food for the family to try. (Observe what the food is and why it might be a healthy choice, hypothesize how the family might respond, experiment by serving it in an appetizing way, and measure observationally how the family actually does respond).

Or enjoying a walk in a new place. (Observe the people and environment, hypothesize what might make the walk most rewarding for you—conversation? solitude? a dog? flowers? a type of architecture?—experiment with different options, measure your level of gratification with each option).

When we actually label our scientific endeavors this way, we remind ourselves that we are indeed scientists by nature.

  1. Value evidence and promote it to the world. Mr. Spock often noted that humans are a passionate species. In fact, when you look at an arena such as sexual and reproductive health education, where ETR does much of its work, you can run across some very high-pitched feelings.

I like being with people who are passionate about evidence. And we have a lot of evidence in the sexual health arena. Yet sometimes the most promising programs for communities most in need aren’t yet in the evidence base.

So I also like using my science skills to create an evidence base of practices and programs that may not have the resources to be evaluated in ways that bring them scientific validation. And this activity actually involves you. I want to hear about your sources and your theories and your proofs. Let’s make the effort to distinguish between what we feel, what we believe, what we intuit or deduce, and what we can affirm by evidence.

And, if it hasn’t yet been affirmed and we think it should be, let’s use science to bring about that affirmation. Like the dedicated scientists we are, let’s talk evidence up, every day.

  1. Collaborate. This is one of my favorite principles. Working with a diverse team and leveraging a range of perspectives is ideal. Or, as my colleague Kieren Jameson said in a recent blog post:

The vast majority of innovations are developed by teams of dedicated people solving problems together. In this team environment, diversity becomes a key to success. Diverse teams generally outperform brilliant individuals.

That’s why I like to talk up ideas, thoughts and evidence with others. I collaborate in small ways—during a quick chat at the water cooler that might generate innovative ideas—and in some pretty big ways—with other national organizations on a research and evaluation project, for example. And the more diverse the team, the better. Diversity across demographics, disciplines, sectors—bring it on! It activates my inner scientist to think about things differently with people who are different from me.

I look for opportunities to collaborate every day.

Rise Up, Science!

You can assess and address the needs of your community by tapping into that spirit of discovery we all have from birth. How are you being a scientist today?

Did you activate your tools for inquiry to select the best educational resources to use in your organization? Did you ask tough questions about who is being served well in your communities—and who isn’t? Did you seek out answers using diverse tools for discovery—scouring Google or going to the library or asking a knowledgeable friend?

We are so glad to have our colleagues and partners join with ETR to ensure that science and evidence continue to be cherished principles informing our work.

Live long and prosper, my fellow scientists.

Vignetta Charles, PhD, is Chief Science Officer at ETR. She is also a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. You can reach her at or find her on LinkedIn.

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