Speaking about science

Beware. Rant ahead.

I think one of the biggest misconceptions that people have when they go into science is that it isn’t a social job. You know the sterotype of the socially awkward, ultra-intellegent, nerdy scientist.

It’s not that these people don’t exist – in fact there is a lot of truth to that sterotype. The misconception is that these people stay holed up in their ivory towers not speaking to anybody. But, as I mentioned, being in science, at least academically, is a social job. You must got to meetings and conferences, present your latest ground-breaking work, eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with fellow scientists and then are expected to drink beer with them until very, very late in the night. And repeat. For several days in a row.

For the most part I enjoy it. I find the exceptions to the norm, the people who are reasonably well-adjusted, clever and fun, but who also really love to talk biology and choose to drink beer with them. That’s not the problem. The problem is having to listen to roughly six hours of formal science talks a day by people who don’t know how to effectively present science.

Really, I was at a meeting with a thousand people. Who would presume that every single one of them is going to have the exact same interests as you do or has sufficient background to understand your work without any context? Is it that difficult to add a couple of slides of “this is the big picture” and “why somebody other than myself should care?”

So I started this rant right after I got back from California, but a week and a half later I am still ranting about the overall quality of presentations in the scientific arena. I had to give yet another seminar this evening, as did a senior graduate student from a lab down the hall. Now, I don’t always give the best talks, but I always make an effort to have my slides easy to read and follow and always, always, start with the bigger questions before going into the specific research. Is that so difficult for other scientists to do as well? Does nobody tell them that is their responsibility?

Perhaps it’s my background with the performing arts, but I think when we communicate our research, we should be telling a story. I would put peer-reviewed scholarly articles akin to a full-blown novel, but a seminar should be something more like a picture book. Big, bright pictures and minimal text. And when we present it there should be inflection in our voice and excitement to be sharing our research.

One of my biggest goals in my career is to develop a course in “Communicating Science” so that graduate students learn early in their careers how to present research in a meaningful and impactful way. Whether it’s describing what you do at a cocktail party, to a fellow colleague in the elevator, at a formal seminar or in a research paper – communication is a vital component to your career.

Okay, I am glad I got that off my chest (not that my labmates haven’t already heard it). The rant is over. And it’s good thing to, because the finale of Top Chef is about to begin…


4 responses to “Speaking about science

  1. Pingback: Teaching Lessons | Puck and Kudzu

  2. Pingback: Defining Moments | Puck and Kudzu

  3. You might like to look at what Steve Cross is doing in the UK. He is a science communication genius. His twitter is @Steve_X

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