It's a good bet that Einstein hair, binocular-like National Health Service specs, soiled lab coats, and acres of corduroy will not be gracing the pages of the glossy mags in this millennium. However, there is a world of difference between what makes a sexy scientist and what makes "sexy" science. You know the sort, I'm sure: the stories that get a whole conference buzzing, end up being published back to back in the big journals, and sometimes even make it into the newspapers. But what defines whether a topic can grip a whole academic field? What governs which stories hit the headlines? And is it really such a good idea to work in a hot area? Those seeking to spice up their bench life should consult the guide below.
First, Select Your Audience
Assess your objectives. Do you want the pleasure of endless free trips, speaking at conferences all over the world? Or perhaps you have dreams of being the next Steve Jones or Susan Greenfield, ready to throw out sound bites at the drop of a hat. Research that sets a meeting on fire or fills the pages of Science will not necessarily appear sexy to the media, so yearn as you might to triumph in both arenas, you're probably going to have to choose.
What happens when you present your work to your colleagues? If a deathly hush descends after the words "Any questions?" choose another topic. As for gauging the likely level of public interest in your chosen field, try to explain your ideas to your mother. If she glazes over and says "That's nice, dear," it's time to abandon your dreams of appearing on the 6 o'clock news.
I Want to Be King of the Nerds!
So you want to be the Tom Jones of the academic scene, with principal investigators congratulating you on your thrilling results and Ph.D. students throwing their knickers at you in the question-and-answer session? All you have to do is find the right ingredients and put the right spin on them. But how to choose your topic? Flip through the pages of any major journal over a few months and you will find that certain themes bunch together. A flurry of back-to-back publications is a major indicator of sexiness. Witness, for example, the recent explosion of papers about histone modification. For those of a more medical persuasion, you can't go wrong with tried and tested fields such as stem cells or brain research. Certain techniques are also hot property at the moment: microarrays, RNAi, and groovy confocal microscopy, for example.
The key to spicing up your research is to work in as many of these hot topics and techniques as possible. To save the hassle of having to actually do any of it, set up a series of collaborations. Before you know it, you'll be sending off your abstract entitled "Microarray and RNAi Profiling of Histone Modifications in Stem Cell Transplants in Parkinson's Disease" and waiting for the conference invitations to come flooding in.
I Want to Be a Media Daahling
Although the finer points of transcriptional regulation may fail to excite the tabloid press, there are certain subjects almost guaranteed to raise the interest of the general public. Sadly, being the self-obsessed species that we are, media-friendly research is usually going to demand some kind of human spin. Health (or our lack of it), pets, and food are major obsessions in our society, so if your research can touch on any of those topics, you are in with a good chance of grabbing a bit of the limelight. Research on obese narcoleptic kittens is therefore guaranteed a headline, although perhaps not a grant renewal. Bizarre and slightly pointless research into the "battle of the sexes" always seems to make it into the press as well. When they finally map the Y-linked gene for leaving the toilet seat up, now that will be interesting.
The other key to making it big in media science is the look. Remember, if you are lucky enough to get a film crew around, to make sure all the lights are turned off for that mysterious "dark arts" feel. Peculiar red or green lighting is optional but helps. PIs should always be filmed at the bench. This is principally for the amusement of their postdocs and Ph.D. students, who know that the aforementioned PI has not lifted a pipette for at least 5 years. Lots of whizzy computer graphics or speeded-up stock film of multiplying bacteria score highly in the trendy stakes.
If television is to become your regular gig, appearance, too, is important and, sadly, sexism still reigns supreme here. The wild-eyed Einstein look seems to be fine for men but is unacceptable for female scientists, where skirts and heels peeping suggestively from under the lab coat are de rigueur.
How Do I Get Into It?
There are two ways to make sure your science is hotter than a phenol burn on a misplaced elbow. First, you can plug away at what you do, bring it up and spin it right at every opportunity, and hope that your day will eventually come. Or you can jump right on the bandwagon as it comes past.
The first option takes dedication, self-belief, and persistence. The second just takes a nose for sexy news. Keep an eye on what is getting published, in the journals or the press, and go straight for gaps within hot spots of research.
But Is It a Good Idea?
There are undoubtedly benefits to working in an exciting, trendy field, especially one that makes it into the mainstream press. There are opportunities for fame (if not fortune), good grant funding, rapid career advancement, and even groupies (if you go to the right conferences).
But consider the drawbacks as well. Can you cope with the fear of being scooped? Do you really want to have to keep your research secret in case someone pinches your ideas? It looks as though more and more people are now choosing to present only published data at meetings because of these fears. This seems contrary to what science should be: an exciting exchange of ideas and novel data.
The other problem with life on the cutting edge is that you can easily slip and hack your legs off. One day, your research may no longer be the stuff of headlines and top papers and your microarray robot will be rusting quietly in the corner. You could be back to publishing in the Annals of Bands on Gels or its equivalent.
Obviously, this doesn't happen to everyone who manages to mine a current scientific vein. There are people in every field who manage to stay relevant year after year, and that's something we can all aspire to. But in the meantime, it is always fun to think about how you can spice up your science a little bit. And if I were you, I'd get a haircut before even thinking about going on television.
Kat Arney is wearing a lab coat with nothing on underneath.