Don’t Be Afraid to Say You Don’t Understand

Sophia Leeman reflects on Dr. Emily Bernhardt's visit with the Huang Fellows

Imagine breathing in the fresh mountain air of western NC as it brushes past your face, staring into an endless sky filled with ancient trees reaching toward the sun, wading through a babbling brook lapping high above your boots, and observing the sounds of the birds, frogs, and bees as they rise and fall with the river. This is the place Emily Bernhardt has called home ever since her earliest memories of camping with her family under the stars. A place Dr. Bernhardt has never truly left, as she continues to find inspiration here for her research as a James B. Duke distinguished professor of Biogeochemistry, Ecologist, and Chair of the Biology Department at Duke University.

mily Bernhardt at a creek outside the Phytotron Building on Duke’s campus (Photo: Megan Morr)
Assist Professor Emily Bernhardt and Professor Richard Di Giulio pose for a series of portraits at a creek outside the Phytotron Building on the campus of Duke University.

When Dr. Bernhardt was little, she had always wanted to be a park ranger so that she could spend all her time with nature, but she had a keen sense of curiosity that was urging her toward science. It wasn’t until she read a book by John and Mildred Teal called Life and Death of a Salt Marsh that she realized she could combine these passions into a career which would make an impact on the environment she loved so dearly. Bernhardt describes Biogeochemistry to be “the chemistry of ecosystems as modified by organisms,” and she works to protect both ecosystems and organisms in a climate that is constantly changing, not just in temperature but in every aspect of chemistry.

“Even as the climate we rely on is quickly changing, so is the technology that will be essential to saving it…”

This has impacts farther reaching than the rising seas stealing our coastlines or the brightening night sky obscuring our view of the stars. Dr. Bernhardt explained that every aspect of the environment we eat, drink, breathe, and interact with is fundamentally different in chemical structure from what it ever has been. As a Biomedical Engineer, I have always found health to be one of the most important things we own. I fear the changing climate threatens to take this away from us as well. The pollution we produce is filling our lungs and increasing the incidence of cancer. The plastics we use are coating our very DNA and affecting the health of our children. The toxins we create are proliferating throughout our bloodstream.

Yet, even as the climate we rely on is quickly changing, so is the technology that will be essential to saving it. Dr. Bernhardt explained that new environmental sensors allow us to collect data from thousands of ecosystems around the world every single second, a prospect she calls both “exciting” and “overwhelming.” To handle this “data deluge” and learn from the data we collect in real time, Bernhardt explains that data scientists have become vital to ecology. In fact, Dr. Bernhardt is about to hire a third data scientist for her lab. Bernhardt explained that these new strategies of collecting environmental data like examining images from space are going to “change the way we see the planet.”

So what can budding scientists like us do to join the tide? Dr. Bernhardt explained that there is a lot more to being a scientist than becoming a master in the techniques and jargon of your specialized field. You also must learn to speak the “language” of many tangential disciplines, data science being one of them. To increase data science “fluency,” Dr. Bernhardt recommended a program at Duke called Data+, in which students spend a summer immersed in data-driven research applied to current challenges in a variety of fields.

However, Dr. Bernhardt explained that a scientist cannot learn just one of these “languages.” The interdisciplinary nature of research demands communication between scientists, mathematicians, ethicists, and even artists. Though Bernhardt understands it would be infeasible to become an expert in every field, she explained that scientists should strive to be able to communicate clearly with each of their collaborators. Dr. Bernhardt’s advice is to pick certain disciplines to become “fluent” in, areas in which you will become highly skilled and enjoy working in. Next, she advises choosing the skills you will need help with often and gain the kind of “language” proficiency akin to being able to order food in a restaurant. For the more unique collaborations, Bernhardt suggests developing what she calls “bathroom” knowledge so that you can communicate your most basic needs.

Dr. Bernhardt urged, “Don’t be afraid to say you don’t understand,” a phrase I feel is the most important to learn in any language. Recovery from climate change cannot be accomplished by scientists alone. Dr. Bernhardt explained that it is a scientist’s duty to communicate science and its importance in a way that is accessible to everyone. After all, science can accomplish nothing at all without communication to society.

Sophia Leeman, Huang Fellow ’24

Leeman_SophiaSophia is a Pratt student from Charlotte, NC intending to major in Biomedical Engineering.