Talking Science

The term “science communication” gets thrown around a lot in my world. It is most commonly used in one of two contexts: (1) during scientific training/education while stressing the importance of being able to communicate your research to individuals outside your field or (2) a potential career to pursue after finishing your degree. While use of “science communication” in these circumstances is perfectly valid, I think it undervalues the professional diversity of those who participate in science communication. Here, I present three distinct types of science communicators, their functions, their messages, and their backgrounds.

To start with, a common career path for scientists interested in communications is to become a science writer. Science writers frequently work for a media company (print, online, etc.) or are freelance journalists/authors who write about complex scientific concepts for a general non-scientific audience. I like to think of them as science translators.

Science writers tend to have some university-level background in science, but whose stand-out skill lies in their ability to boil down complex concepts into simple terms and analogies. They no longer perform original research but build and maintain networks of scientists about whose work they try to get the public excited and interested. Most impressively, science writers are uniquely tasked with coherently and accurately describing scientific fields in which they may have minimal to no background.

I find it more difficult to remember the names of specific science writers (unless they’ve authored a particularly noteworthy book), but they do well at leaving the reader with specific tidbits of information.

The most easily recognizable (i.e. widest audience) scientific communicator is the science presenter. These individuals are typically charismatic scientists who have been determined to have a marketable face and can make science sound interesting/fascinating to almost anyone. I like to think of these few individuals as science celebrities.

Science presenters have names you recognize, including Bill Nye, Professor Brian Cox, and Neil deGrasse Tyson (I know this last one has some scandal associated with it right now). While they are very good about getting non-scientific people excited about science, they aren’t known for educating the average person about specific scientific concepts/principles. They say something that makes you say “woah, that’s cool”, then instantly forget what was just said.

While science presenters ordinarily hold at least one position at a scientific institution, they aren’t best known for performing original research.

Science celebrities have the vital, difficult responsibility of getting the average Joe/Jane excited about science, with the aim that Joe/Jane ventures out to learn more for themselves.

The most populated type of science communicator is the scientist who can communicate. Their role is science communication is exactly how it sounds: their primary responsibility is to perform research in their niche scientific field, but they also have the invaluable skill of communicating their work to diverse audiences. I like to think of these amazing individuals as next-gen scientists, meaning that these are what science trainees should aim to become.

Earning a PhD confers expertise in a particular field, so these scientists predominantly hold terminal degrees from respected institutions and work as faculty at universities or federal organizations. Their names aren’t yet widely known outside specialty fields, but their popularity is growing due to their presence on social media (namely Twitter and Instagram).

While scientists who can communicate focus much of their communication on the field(s) that they actively work in, they can adapt their messages to the audience, narrowing in on the nitty-gritty details or presenting a 10,000 foot view of their field. This is the category of science communicators that I am most excited about because they allow members of the public direct access to the most cutting-edge science.

Excitingly, there are some impressive individuals who are blurring the lines between these types of communicators, resulting in all scientific fields becoming more accessible to the public. I only hope that members of the public trust us enough to believe what we say.

Herding Hemingway’s Cats: Understanding How Our Genes Work by Kat Arney

I have known of Dr. Kat Arney for a long time. My parents have been friends with her aunt and uncle for as long as I can remember. When I moved to London to work on my master’s degree, I was put in touch with Kat and her sister, Helen. Both sisters are very British (a good thing), very nerdy (also a good thing), and work in science communication. **I also highly recommend looking into Helen’s work with Festival of the Spoken Nerd**

In my time in London, I was fortunate enough to meet Helen and see FOTSN perform. However, Kat was very busy at her job with Cancer Research UK and, as it turns out, writing her book, “Herding Hemingway’s Cats: Understanding How Our Genes Work”, which was published in 2016.

kat arney book 1

I’ve had this book on my reading list for a while, but only recently picked it up. My background is definitely not in genetics, but recent classes have educated me significantly and renewed my interest in the field. I am still not an expert in the field, but I believe I know enough to recommend this book as both a scientist and bookworm.

Herding Hemingway’s Cats reads like an understated scientific discourse, surely reflecting Dr. Arney’s time as a doctoral student at Cambridge University. Kat beautifully weaves principles of genetics/epigenetics and her conversations with the researchers who discovered these principles.

As a scientist, I loved Kat’s writing style because it felt like I was eavesdropping on a couple people talking science. I find conversations about science to be fascinating, invigorating, inspiring, and educational, even if you don’t understand everything that is discussed.

Kat is honest about disagreements in the field and presents researchers’ opposing viewpoints where relevant. I also love that she featured the voices of researchers both widely known and those that may be less well-known, but still worth finding out about. The tone of the entire book is conversational and welcoming while still diving into some of the gritty details of our genome.

Overall, the book does a good job of presenting complex genetic concepts with simplified analogies to make impossible small phenomena easier to visualize. I occasionally got lost in the volume of information the book was presenting, making it slightly difficult to keep focus, but those sections were few and far between.

In my opinion, this book will be best received by individuals with some scientific background or interest. Having a university-level education in biology certainly helped me understand 99% of the presented discussions and concepts.

Though it has nothing to do with the quality of this book or the science, this book reads like it is for a British audience. This completely makes sense, as Dr. Arney is British and has been writing for a British audience for over a decade now. Her British colloquialisms made me chuckle and feel like I was back in London, if only for a moment.

Kat published her second book last year, which is already on my “to read” list, and I’m excited to see what she can teach me next.

A Story A Day: Part 3

**This is a continuation from my previous post**

Thursday

I finished my Bioinformatics final on Wednesday afternoon, reaching the intended conclusion that genome mutations in cancer do not necessarily lead to dysregulation of the corresponding genes, nor do they all contribute to the development of metastasis. It turned out to be a very interesting assignment, even if I don’t study cancer.

I spent my Wednesday morning helping a couple classmates (one in particular) work out the kinks to their programming code. The TAs wrote this final assignment and brilliantly gave each student a different set of original data, so no two students would have even remotely the same answers on their submitted projects. I think it’s brilliant because it is a nearly-guaranteed way that every student will write their own programs. Though it does complicate their work in grading.

I left campus in the early afternoon to, of all things, help my father catch my cat. When we’re out of town, my cat typically stays with at my parent’s house with their cats so he’ll have some company for the duration of my absence. As anyone whose owned a cat knows, they don’t necessarily (or at all) like car rides, and especially don’t like being in their little cat cages for any period.

I came home for a grand total of maybe 30 minutes, 15 of which was spent waiting for my father to get to my house. As soon as he arrived, a called my cat in from the backyard – he actually responds when I call for him – and put him in his carrier. He immediately started whining and looking at me like I had betrayed him. I hope he forgets my betrayal by the time we get back. Unfortunately, I had to return to campus for an afternoon seminar. I would have much preferred to stay home.

Friday

Every Friday, the Biochemistry & Cell Biology faculty and students get together at lunch, eat pizza, and listen to one of the PhD candidates present recent data or general overviews of their doctoral research. I count on this gathering as a source for lunch every Friday. Don’t get me wrong, the research is awesome and it’s a nice way to take a break from the lab every Friday, but I come for the pizza. However, Friday morning, the lecture for that day was cancelled because the woman scheduled to present defended her dissertation last month and didn’t want to come back in to give another one. In her position, I probably would have done the same thing.

Unfortunately, it meant that 10 minutes after getting to campus, I realized there was no reason for me to be there. I did some busy work for a couple hours, wrote some notes to myself about how I should proceed with experiments in January (assuming I’d forget them while on vacation), and left.

Saturday

We flew out on Saturday night. I don’t usually board early enough to get one of the seats up front but was able to get an aisle seat in the first row (yay for extra leg room), at which point I snapped the picture above before we took off.

I don’t also don’t usually talk to the people around me but overheard the couple next to me talking about their vacation plans. We struck up a normal small-talk plane conversation; the kind you have with someone you know you’re very likely to never see again. I told the woman sitting next to me that I was a PhD student and explained my research in clinical context. I’ve found that the average person connects far more to the idea of what your research is going to do for them than what the day-to-day operations are really like.

We talked for a bit about medical issues relevant to her and the research I was familiar with that was working towards to treatments for them. I most used to having that conversation, where people pick my brain about cutting edge therapies for whatever ails them and their family/friends. I love having those conversations because it tests how much I’ve been paying attention to biomedical research, though I freely admit whenever there’s a disease/disorder I know nothing about.

After talking for 20 minutes or so, the flight attendant stopped us, having overheard most of our conversation, to suggest I check out an organization she was a part of called P.E.O. (People Educating Others). I had never heard of the group, but she said that over the past 20 years, they had awarded grants totaling almost $25 million to PhD students in the last 2 years of their program. The awards are very competitive (~10% of applicants receive the grant) but can involve projects from novel treatments for viral infection to women’s education in developing countries. She recommended I apply for the grant when in that stage of my training and gave me her contact information if I needed any help getting in touch with the chapter closest to me.

The entire flight was an odd but unexpectedly pleasant experience. I happily take advantage of any time I can bend someone’s ear about my work and even happier when someone points me towards an organization with similar interests/values to mine. It goes to show that you never know when someone can help you and many people will do so if given the opportunity.

I sometimes need to remind myself to be kind, excited, open-minded, and patient. This is why.

Which Words Don’t Matter?

Scientific writing is of paramount importance to any researcher looking to communicate, disseminate, seek funding for, and convey the importance of their work. The phrase “publish or perish” has become a mantra for a reason, though scientific writing extends far beyond publishing your research.

Writing is a process involving multiple chances to improve the writing and target the message for its intended audience, through edits. Scientific editing is a test of pride and ego for the author, one which I struggle with.

While most people, even outside scientific fields, are familiar with the concepts of publishing research and even applying for funding through grants, scientific writing can also include press releases, mass media articles, and blog posts. Each of these types of scientific writing involves different styles (e.g. informative, persuasive) and amounts of scientific jargon.

While I’ve worked on most types of writing mentioned, I’ve mainly been responsible for editing other people’s work. The fellowship applications I submitted this past fall were the first time I was fully responsible for writing a research proposal for a scientific audience. I allotted plenty of time in my application preparation to allow for multiple revisions, including edits by mentors and colleagues. Unfortunately, planning ahead didn’t help me when I had a 2.5 page research plan that was only allowed 2 pages of space.

In my quest to shorten the document, I met with a mentor who has been working in academic research for more than 20 years. She pointed out that as scientists, we like to think that all of our words are significant, but in editing, our challenge is to choose which words don’t matter or contribute nothing to the sentence’s purpose. She proceeded to go through one of my paragraphs and delete two or three words in each sentence, shortening the paragraph by two lines. I was baffled, insulted, and impressed at the same time.

In my editing work, I had thrown away other people’s words with such nonchalance, but never watched it happen to my words. Witnessing the destruction made me think back to how previous colleagues had reacted badly when I removed entire paragraphs of detail from their research proposals due to space constraints and consideration of the reviewer’s point of view.

As it turns out, I have absolutely no problem editing other people’s writing, but I struggle with editing my own. I find it incredibly difficult to decide which of my words contribute nothing, as each deletion seems to chip away at my pride. Writing is a struggle for me, it always has been, but I have gotten better at it through years of practice. I don’t like the idea that something I’ve struggled to write can be disposed of so easily.

As a potential pseudo-solution, I recently discovered that I tend to forget what I’ve written. I’m hoping that this will remove my ego from the editing process. If I write something far enough ahead of a deadline, I will allow myself enough time to forget what I’ve written and can then go back to the writing as if I was editing someone else’s work. I understand that this may require extensive planning ahead, but I’m willing to do so if it facilitates an objective assessment of my writing.

In time, I want to be able to edit my writing without tricking myself into thinking it’s another’s work. I expect that editing my work will become easier with more practice and with the ability to separate my ego from my work.