VERMILLION, S.D. | University of South Dakota at Vermillion research scientists Gina Forster and Ranjit Koodali are collaborating on a big project these days.
Dr. Koodali, an associate professor of chemistry, helps make the nano materials while Dr. Forster, an associate professor of basic biomedical sciences, works on the aspects related to using these materials for crossing the blood-brain barrier.
Serious, important work, this is. Not something you will see anytime soon on TV.
But thanks to a popular TV sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory,” the work of researchers like Forster and Koodali is gaining a kind of recognition they never expected. And despite the often stereotypical behavior of the show’s characters, both scientists love “The Big Bang Theory.” Maybe even because of the stereotypes.
Forster, a native of New Zealand who has been at USD for 12 years, didn’t watch the show when it premiered in 2007, but has become a big fan in recent years.
“I watched an episode and I found it particularly funny,” she said. “It’s one of the few examples that I’ve seen on a comedy show in which the science is part of the show. I think it creates interest in science that would not have been there before. And it shows that science geeks are kind of cool at the same time. So it’s cool to be a scientist.”
Not being a physicist, she said she isn’t sure if the show’s physics is accurate, but there is a neuroscientist on the show who appears to be throwing around a lot of scientific terms correctly. So they are getting the science right and making it fun, she added.
Forster also likes that it portrays the lifestyle of a younger group, showing you don’t have to be an “old maid scientist” in a tweed coat and holding a pile to get into science. “I think if I were younger, I would have found that quite a big influence on me.”
Koodali, a native of India who has been at USD since 2005, said when many think of a scientist, it is based on such portrayals as the absent-minded professor who has no life other than his own scientific problems or pursuits.
“But 'The Big Bang Theory' kind of shows you that there’s life beyond the laboratory or research work. So we can all relate to it, too. We have children and family to support and other activities, hobbies and interests apart from our science,” he said.
And these guys, like average Joes, even hang out at a comic book store, Forster noted.
“Well, given that I don’t like comic books or science fiction, per se, I mostly know that I’m still a science geek,” she said.
Koodali, a big sports fan with a life outside the lab, enjoys the show not only because it is funny but because it dispels this misconception that scientists are a different breed.
Yet while the show focuses on science, it also highlights the different quirks and personalities of the scientists, such as Sheldon Cooper, the egotistical theoretical physicist played by Jim Parsons, and Leonard Hofstadter, the regular-guy experimental physicist played by Johnny Galecki. They and their colleagues have quirks that both scientists can spot, to one degree or another, in their colleagues.
“Some of us, we all relate to them, more with Leonard in a way than Sheldon, because he is practical-minded. Dr. Cooper, of course, he’s this genius, and none of us would like to be known as Dr. Cooper. He’s Mr. Know-It-All,” he said. “But Leonard is kind of an average person. Well- qualified, going to college and working there, got a PhD in his early 20s. So what it portrays is that you can be a brilliant scientist and yet lead a normal life and enjoy things.”
As a fellow immigrant, Koodali identifies a bit with Raj, the astrophysicist from India played by Kunal Nayyer.
“There was one episode where he has to leave the country because of his immigration status. And that very often happens when you are on a certain visa and your papers do not come,” he said. There’s always this added pressure of whether you can continue to be in your position or not. Those elements often lead to things that I can relate to.”
Forster said she can also relate to the female scientist, Amy Farrah Fowler, played by Mayim Bialik.
“Her social skills are not much to relate to, but at least we’re glad to see a scientist here,” she said. “And I feel that the other female, Penny (Kaley Cuoco), who wasn’t the brilliant scientist, was much smarter than the rest of them anyway. It just shows there’s a difference between a street-smart person and the education-smart. So actually we appreciate her as a character even though she wasn’t a scientist.”
This is an aspect of one other scientist-filled show Forster enjoys, “Eureka,” a sci-fi show which featured an average Joe lawman, the proverbial parent, dealing with a town full of brilliant scientists. While she likes the show for the scientists and their quirks, she also enjoys Eureka’s administration and its dealings with the federal government, “which is something we have to do quite a lot.”
If she were younger, Forster said, she might even find this show, with its smart, likable scientists, inspirational.
Growing up in their respective countries, neither budding researcher had much access to TV shows featuring scientists outside of documentaries and some science fiction shows which Forster never liked. Koodali watched “Star Trek” reruns as a kid in India, but that was about it.
One thing both like about “The Big Bang Theory” is the way it gets the office politics right, Sheldon’s actions notwithstanding.
“Normally in an academy, there is always a give and take,” Forster said. “We don’t try to ruffle feathers. There’s always diplomacy and we’re not normally very direct. Everything’s handled diplomatically. I think Sheldon lacks social skills, to put it very mildly. And so when you do piss off administrators, there are consequences. You know, your key could be taken or your lab space could disappear. So it just goes to show that in science you work in a collaborative environment. You treat your colleagues with respect. You can agree to disagree but not in a very bad way or put people off by just making some bold remarks or by going above board.”
Unless, of course, you’re Sheldon Cooper.