Sophie Gutenthaler: “Understanding a process is the key to not being afraid or suspicious of it”

Sophie Gutenthaler profileSophie Gutenthaler received a B.Sc. in Biochemistry and Chemistry and a Chemistry from LMU Munich, supported by a Deutschlandstipendium. As part of her studies, she gained international experience during a three-month research internship at the University of York, funded by PROSALMU. During her master’s studies, she led science workshops for gifted children and was a research assistant for the Robert-Bosch Project – Our Common Future, as part of a university-school collaboration. She is currently pursuing a PhD in bioinorganic chemistry in Prof. Lena Daumann’s research group at LMU Munich, funded by a doctoral scholarship from the German Academic Scholarship Foundation. She especially enjoys passing on her love and enthusiasm for chemistry and is very passionate about getting involved in science communication.

Do we need trust in science and what can that achieve?

Sophie Gutenthaler: Yes, I definitely think we need to trust in science. Without trust in science, scientists and the scientific process itself, the research that is done cannot be effectively used for the public and therefore does not benefit people in the way it should. As not everybody can have the same understanding as the leading experts in a research field who have spent years developing their skills, one has to trust the findings – so long as they have been produced adhering to the high standards of the scientific community and are backed with data and evidence. This shouldn’t be confused with trusting blindly. However, not only the general public needs trust in science, but scientists themselves do as well. I, as a scientist, for example, have to trust my collaboration partners and their skillsets in order to work together effectively. This doesn’t mean that I don’t ask questions, look at the data or think critically about the findings. No, this means that I trust their expertise and that they can do their jobs and I don’t slow down the research process with unnecessary distrust.

Did the pandemic change anything as regards public trust in science? Is there a crisis or an upsurge in it?

Sophie Gutenthaler: I definitely think the pandemic has had an impact on public trust in science. What I have seen so far from the collected data on this topic is that trust in science has increased in some countries, contrary to the feeling most people have. I would say that it feels like trust has decreased because the minority of people that were prone to conspiracy theories before the pandemic and prone to believing misinformation have got louder and are portrayed more often in the media. I think this is problematic as it drives the division of society and gets more people to distrust scientific findings and facts, which definitely does not help with tackling global issues, such as climate change, together as a society.

How should misinformation be confronted? Who is and who should be responsible for this?

Sophie Gutenthaler: That’s a difficult question and I don’t have a suggestion for an easy fix. I deeply believe that the freedom of speech and of the press are crucial in a democratic society, however spreading misinformation that potentially harms people has nothing to do with free speech or free press and should therefore be eliminated. A good project that was developed during a Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting Sciathon in 2020 and that tries to tackle the issue is the web extension authentiSci, which should help members of the general public check articles on the internet for reliability based on the judgement of scientists who are experts in the field discussed in a given article. I think such projects could help, but in order to use this tool, one has to trust in the ability of the scientists who fact-checked the articles. In general, misinformation should be confronted with facts. However, in order for this to work, a foundation built on trust for science and scientists must be present. In the media, for example, mandatory fact-checks with real peer-reviewed scientific literature may be feasible in order to prevent the spread of misinformation.

Is science communication important for scientists?

Sophie Gutenthaler: In my personal opinion, science communication is very important, otherwise the research we are doing doesn’t have the same impact and cannot be used for society as it should be. I can only speak for myself, but I think a lot of people become scientists because they want to make a difference and want to enrich society with their findings. In addition, I think the public has a right to know what their money is used for, which I say in reference to the fact that a lot of research is publically funded. The work we are doing today as scientists is getting more complex and specialised. Because of this, a lot of explanations between scientists across different fields are needed, as well as good communication to the public that can present a general idea of the research and why it is important. However, not only current research needs to be communicated, but also how the scientific process works in general, in order to generate a basic understanding, which will then prevent people from believing misinformation and distrusting science or scientists in general. Understanding a process is the key to not being afraid or suspicious of it. Unfortunately, science communication is not a subject that scientists usually study as part of their general education nowadays. I think the skills needed to successfully communicate science are becoming more important and should therefore be included in the education process for scientists. I would have loved a course on science communication during my studies!

There is widespread suspicion towards chemistry. What would you say to someone who feels that way?

Sophie Gutenthaler: I think I would start by explaining that everything in life is chemistry and how much we depend on chemistry. In our body alone, many chemical reactions take place every single second! There is no such thing as chemistry-free – all natural products contain chemicals – just those synthesised by nature and not by a chemist in a lab. One should also talk about what went wrong in the past, for example with regard to dangerous misuse of chemicals or insufficient safety precautions for new drugs. The more you know about something, the less scary it is. The scientific workflow has always been adapted and optimised whenever mistakes have been made in order to prevent abuse. I think transparency is very important, as is taking peoples’ concerns seriously. I think one thing I am good at is showing people how much fun doing chemistry can be and how fascinating it is to discover new things and to work in a lab – I mean who doesn’t love glowing and colourful solutions?!

Academic freedom is a scientist’s right. What are researchers’ responsibilities while exercising and preserving this right? Have you ever felt or witnessed an attempt to abuse it?

Sophie Gutenthaler: For me a core part of our responsibility as researchers is to be transparent about our research and make sure that everything we do follows good scientific practice and is, to the best of our knowledge and capabilities, reproducible! Furthermore, we also have to make sure that the ways in which we work are safe and that we always stick to the safety protocols. I have to say, I have never felt restricted in my academic freedom and have always been encouraged by my PI (principal investigator), Lena Daumann, to follow the scientific guidelines for transparent science! We are huge fans of control experiments and we try to be as transparent as we can be in our publications. Luckily, I have not witnessed any attempt to restrict or abuse academic freedom so far in my career. When thinking about all the amazing and enthusiastic young scientists I met at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting this year, I have to say I am very optimistic about the scientific future!

When and what was your first step in science?

Sophie Gutenthaler: That depends on what you would count as a first step in science. I would say for me, it started when I decided that I want to study chemistry. This was back in school – I think I was 13 or 14 years old and I had my first chemistry lecture with a great teacher. I was deeply impressed by the subject and started to realise pretty quickly that it fascinated me and I wanted to learn as much as I could about it. The more I came into contact with experiments at school and scientific concepts, the more I knew that this was the right thing for me! Then of course the first big steps towards becoming a scientist were studying chemistry for my bachelor’s degree and for my master’s degree, and then finally deciding to do a PhD. And I am happy that I can say that I do not regret my decision as a teenager to follow that path. I feel very lucky that I have the opportunity to do research I am passionate about and work with amazing colleagues and cool equipment every day.

What is your dream as a researcher?

Sophie Gutenthaler: I really hope that the research that I am currently doing and will do in the future will have an impact and help to make this world a bit better. Doing something that I think is useful is definitely a driving force for me! Furthermore, I also want to make a difference as a researcher when it comes to making science a more inclusive and diverse place and to help the public – no matter if young or old – to understand the importance and relevance of science. If one other human being starts to follow the scientific path because of me – wow, that would be an honour and definitely a dream come true!

Related article

Leave a Reply