Debbie Knight

A challenge in communicating science, even amongst scientists

In observation on September 12, 2011 at 11:58 am

Poster session at the 2010 CMIB research retreat

Forget singing “Kumbaya” around the campfire, this retreat is something entirely different.

Every year and a half the Center for Microbial Interface Biology (CMIB) has a research retreat. This retreat is a day and a half meeting in the very building in which the Center resides. I guess in this case the retreat (for the Retreat) is from the laboratory setting rather than a retreat from society. This meeting allows researchers from across the Center to share their research findings with each other through oral presentations, poster presentations, and informal chats which serves to reinforce ties with each other, forge new ones, and spark new scientific ideas.

I only attended a few hours of the retreat this year. And I started by walking through a room full of research posters while everyone else was off listening to a speaker. The room was quiet – unlike when a poster session is going on where there’s little room to maneuver between people standing at various posters discussing research findings and the din is deafening.

As I strolled through the rows and rows of posters, I did a little experiment of my own. Recently I’ve taken a couple of journalism classes and instead of looking at the posters through the eyes of a scientist, I put on my science communicator goggles. My quest: to find research results (in this room full of research results) that might be newsworthy “stories” for the general public.

I didn’t really read much more than the titles and the abstracts as I meandered through the posters. Some titles included:

  • “Biochemical properties of Mycobacterium Tuberculosis cell wall fragments released following exposure to human alveolar hydrolases and their impact in the capacity of controlling infection by human macrophages,”
  • “Effects of Salmonella PhoP-PhoQ and PmrA-PmrB-mediated lipolysaccharide modifications on LL-37 expression in human monocyte-derived macrophages,”
  • “The viral restriction factor tetherin is upregulated upon HIV-1 infection of dendritic cells in a NEF-dependent manner,” and
  • “Secreted trypanosomal cylcophilin mediates host antimicrobial peptide evasion promoting parasite survival and infectivity.”

Many of the topics weren’t even close to my area of expertise, so I’ll admit my eyes started to glaze over after a while.

Just from this cursory stroll, I realized I would’ve been hard-pressed to find an obvious story in which the general public would be genuinely interested. Why?  The posters were so narrowly focused. This is true of most scientific research, including my own.

Most scientific research is incremental, adding important information to a greater body of knowledge which builds until the story is “big” enough and complete enough to take to the public. What I’ve noticed is that most of the stories that make it to the public’s ears are significant leaps in that body of knowledge. The “first” to show a remarkable phenomenon will almost always find its way to the public.

But those little stories, those little (yet important) advances don’t usually attract much media attention. I stress that they are important because without the incremental advances, the “big bang” stories wouldn’t be possible. That one final piece of data, that one piece of the puzzle, when it finally falls into place has a huge impact on scientific community (the one the public often hears about through the media).

I admit my stroll was cursory, so is it possible I could have overlooked something in this sea of posters? Certainly. Since I’m not as familiar with bacteria as I am with viruses, it’s entirely possible I missed something noteworthy. But nothing jumped out at me. If there was something important that the public should know, it was buried deep in all the technical scientific language so that not even I, a biologist versed in “science-ese”, would notice.

Sometimes scientists forget their audience – they are so enmeshed in science and life in what I call the “ivory tower of science” that they forget how to communicate with regular everyday folks or even scientists in another research field.

This is especially important to remember at this retreat. The Center has members whose research spans a number of fields from bacteriology in humans, animals, and trees to virology to parasitology to mycology (the study of fungus). While all these fall under the larger category “microbiology,” each field is very different from another. A scientist may be well-versed in virology, but have a cursory knowledge of what’s happening in the world of parasites (I know it’s true in my case!). At this retreat, communicating, even amongst scientists, can be a challenge.

Taking journalism classes has opened my eyes to how poorly scientists sometimes communicate with each other as well as the general public. When you live in an ivory tower for too long, you forget that not everyone knows what a “pipet” or a “gas chromatograph” is. You take it for granted that “everyone” knows what these terms mean.

I’m not sure what the solution is here and perhaps some of you can make suggestions via comments below. Perhaps it’s a matter of awareness – I admit that I’ve lived in my ivory tower for a little too long and have forgotten how to communicate with regular folk, but the classes are helping.

Perhaps heightening that awareness in other researchers will make them better communicators as well.

I can only hope.

  1. Very good point. Unfortunately, I see a lot of researchers not interested in what they are researching, and therefore have little interest in learning to communicate it, except when necessary.
    Over the long run, I think it’s best for scientists to learn to communicate by talking about science and research as a process (the general picture), and ignore the specifics of their research. Everyday we use scientific processes and most people don’t know it/are not aware. Science involves asking questions to solve problems, period. If we, scientists, can break it down to this, “This is what problem I am solving…” and “These are the questions I am asking…”, communicating with anyone will be much simpler.

    Probably only 8 people on the planet knows what this means, “Effects of Salmonella PhoP-PhoQ and PmrA-PmrB-mediated lipolysaccharide modifications on LL-37 expression in human monocyte-derived macrophages.”
    On the other hand, maybe something like: “I’m solving a problem caused in the human immune system in response to bacterial infection. The questions I asked are, what happens when I infect human cell ‘X’ with bacteria ‘A’?”

    There’s a fun “story” for the public, Grad Student Aiming to Improve Human Immune System.

    Tom from Chicago.

    • Good point, Tom!
      At one point in my science career I moonlit at a grocery store and I got the “Oh, really? What kind of research do you do?” question from customers. I only had a few moments for an answer (before their eyes glazed over and they regretted asking the question). I got pretty good at describing the research in 2 or 3 short sentences (but it took some work to get it polished into those brief sentences, let me tell you!).

  2. I agree with the premise of your article, that scientists are not always the best communicators. However, this was a scientific retreat with an audience of scientists, most of whom are bacteriologists. In this case, I believe it was okay to have an esoteric title, because it was tailored to (a majority of) the audience. If this were a press release, a general science meeting, or a less focused event, then point taken. I would also argue that when it comes time to write papers and grants, this level of detail is required, and therefore practice at this level of detail is equally as important as practicing one’s elevator speech. In my opinion, both are important and both have their place in scientific training.

    • JJ: Point taken. I agree VERY specific details are absolutely required for a scientific manuscript and/or grant proposal. I also agree that there needs to be a certain level of detail on scientific posters (otherwise what’s the point?). However, I think that perhaps scientists need to rethink how they are communicating on those poster and oral presentations. Why can’t an oral presenter at a meeting shake things up and be more engaging and/or interactive with the audience? Why is it status quo to present research to other scientists in “lecture mode?” Can a scientist get across a similar message using different tools, different methods? Back in the day, scientists had to ask the public directly for funding and they were reputedly good at engaging the audience (I guess they would have to be if they wanted money). When did some scientists lose this interest in the audience and why are many so poor at communicating their work? These are things with which I struggle.

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