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I have been thinking a lot about science communication lately. I am by no means an expert, nor am I formally trained in the field. Rather, my opinions and thoughts on the subject stem completely from my own attempts at trying to communicate science (mostly biology) and from watching and listening to others trying to communicate science.
As I’ve been having some difficulty finding sufficient time to complete and polish up my thoughts for my blog, I think I better make this a multi-part post. Perhaps a good place to start is with how I became interested in science communication in the first place.
It started in graduate school. I wanted to do very basic cell and molecular biology research, and I ended up in a yeast lab studying the process of cell polarization. My friends and family were interested (or maybe just curious) to know what I was spending my days and nights working on. I was very embarrassed when I found that I couldn’t adequately explain it to them.
But I was the expert! Compared to my non-scientist friends and family at least, I was supposed to be the expert and the scientist and yet… I couldn’t explain what I was working on. I found the disparity very distressing.
I’m not sure that most scientists feel the same sort of distress when unable to explain their science. It was certainly very tempting to dismiss my friends and family and say something to the effect of “Well, it’s complicated. You wouldn’t understand.”
But I don’t actually believe that. I am not a genius by any measure. I am merely someone who has an interest in science and has focused much of her education and training in learning and understanding biology. In fact, the way I think about and understand biology in my own head is usually in very simplistic terms. I don’t believe biology is actually that complicated – I think most biological concepts are pretty intuitive. (I think what is more complicated is the actual research – learning research techniques, understanding their limitations, and properly applying them to extend our knowledge.)
So then the disparity between my understanding of my research and my inability to describe my research to my friends and family is really a result of the difference between our foundations of biology knowledge. If I could just quickly teach my friends and family what they needed to know in order to understand in a general sense what I was working on, then that would be a start.
And so I have tried – with hand gestures to explain how a budding yeast cell divides and with metaphors to explain cell signaling and phosphorylation – with mixed results. Mostly, there are glazed looks. People tend to remember the yeast part (the beer and bread angle help). My dad remembers that I studied Cdc-something (two of the proteins I studied were Cdc42 and Cdc24, which I can only discern because I spent six years thinking about them).
Perhaps the most important thing that I learned from all these attempts (successful or not) is that I actually enjoyed the challenge. Figuring out how to make my research (or some other biological concept) understandable to someone without a scientific background was a very fulfilling challenge for me. It was certainly more fulfilling than actually doing my research.
Next up: what I learned as a scientist communicating with other scientists.