Science Communcation

March 22nd, 2010

Over at BioStar, someone asked the question: How do you explain what you do to the guy on the street or your mum?

Poor science communication is a pet peeve of mine, so I wrote a rather long answer. First of all, I totally think that science communication should be a required course in every PhD program, and that you should have to practice explaining your work until you can do it in your sleep. Scientists can be their own best advocates, but they need to work at it.

As a scientist, you need to be able to explain your work at several different depths. The most important part of this process is accurately gauging the interest and experience of your audience, so you can choose the appropriate spiel. Here are a few of the explanations that you need to have ready:

For non-scientists:

  • The layperson’s 15-second elevator pitch: For the cocktail party or the new acquaintance who asks what you do. They should walk away understanding that you do science and that your work is trying to make the world a better place. (“better cancer treatments”, “new malaria drugs”)
  • The follow-up 2-minute overview if they ask for more details Still very high level, abstract, focused on where you’re trying to get with your research. (“understanding XYZ part of disease ABC by looking at things through a microscope”, “figuring out how the brain stores memories by sticking people in cool scanners”)
  • The full explanation. For the non-scientists who really want to wrap their head around what you do. Keep in mind that these people may not have taken a science course since high school. Avoid jargon and acronyms, and make sure that at the end, you leave them with the big picture idea of what you’re trying to accomplish and how that will advance humanity.

For scientists:

  • The scientists’s elevator pitch. For people who you’ll meet around your campus or at conferences. You may even need two or three of these, for use in different venues. (At a focused conference, you’ll be more specific and jargon-ythan at a departmental retreat)
  • The two-minute casual conversation. This one is tricky, because you need to read the person you’re talking to in a very short time. Do they know what RMA is? What about ERBB2? What’s their background, and how can I look at my problem from their angle, so as to best couch my answer in terms they’ll understand?
  • The 5, 15, and 30 minute presentations, often with slides or a poster. You should get drilled in these during your graduate school career, and if you didn’t, there’s no time like the present to start practicing.

Once you get these down, practice the final element, which is being enthusiastic about your work. After all, you probably think that what you’re researching is one of the coolest and most important things ever. If that comes across to your audience, they’ll be engaged and interested too.

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