About Me

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I'm an assistant professor of neuroscience at Washington State University in Vancouver, where I use tiny zebrafish (the size of an eyelash!) as a model system to study human hearing loss and how we can prevent it. I'm also a long-time Toastmaster and I teach communication workshops. This blog represents the merging of my two passions - science and communication, which has really become one central passion - the science of communication. There's a revolution in science right now...the idea that we scientists should sometimes leave the lab and talk about what we do, and why we do it, to real people. This blog looks at why we should do this, and how to actually talk about science with non-scientists (and with each other!). Portions of this blog are also featured on Qualia, the AAAS MemberCenter blog site.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

I'm not the only one thinking about science communication

Happy Holidays everyone!  Given the busy time of year, my brain is currently occupied with other things (anyone else still need to finish their holiday shopping?), so rather than creating original content today I thought I'd share a useful resource for science communication.

AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) has a strong focus in science communication and outreach.  At their Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology you'll find useful information about public outreach initiatives and advice similar to what I write here...tips for how to communicate science to real people.  I particularly like their Communication Basics pages.  Check it out if you have a few moments, and maybe you can spark some interest in science with your friends and family this holiday season as you sit around the dinner table.  Communication can happen every day.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

To hype or not to hype…what a question!

Last week NASA held a press conference “to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.”  The blogosphere went wild in the days before the announcement, speculating everything from the discovery of ET to possible life on Mars (just do a Google search for “NASA press conference”).  As many of you probably know by now, the actual announcement was that a research group in California had discovered a type of bacteria that can substitute arsenic for phosphorous, changing our definition of what chemical elements are essential for life.

The aftermath of this announcement has also been stupendous.  Some of the online discussion really looks at the merits of the science and how this information might be used in the future, with interesting discussion in unusual places, like a science fiction blog by Karl Schroeder.  The problem is, a lot of people have gotten the science wrong and are still wildly speculating, driven by the pre-press conference rumors.

Did NASA astrobiology help or hurt this research, and science in general, by publicizing this finding as news that will change how we search for life on other planets?  Is NASA to blame for others getting the research wrong, or should NASA be commended for getting people excited about science, even if those people then mid-understand the details?  The Engage Science class at the University of Washington debated this topic last week, and were split on the issue…we agree that it’s important to get the public excited about science (that’s the whole purpose of Engage!), but we’re also scientists, so it pains us when people get the facts wrong.  I then talked to a smart non-scientist friend and she was initially excited about the impending NASA announcement, but disappointed when it wasn’t really about life on another planet.  

When we hype up our science, are we helping to engage the public, or are we setting them up for a let down?  Does it matter as long as people get excited about science, even if they’re excited about incorrect information?  What do you think?

Telling (True) Stories

As scientists we’re taught to stick to the facts, rather than to tell stories.  However, facts on their own are just that – facts.  Collections of information that on their own don’t come together into a larger whole, one that tells us something new about the world.  To convey that bigger picture, the importance of these facts, the new ideas or conclusions we can draw from these facts, we need to tell a story.

Stories are particularly important if we’re giving a scientific talk to a lay audience.  People respond to stories - just look at the success of Hollywood blockbusters or the latest book on the bestseller list.  Scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson talks about scientific (and Hollywood) storytelling in his book “Don’t be Such a Scientist”, where he reminds us that even science has heroes, villains, and the occasional damsel in distress.

What’s your story?  Here are a few story forms that work well with scientific talks.
·      Problem/solution: Convince your audience that there’s a problem, then take them through data that points to a solution.  This is a common form for seminars.
·      Assumption/solution1: A revision of problem/solution, you first simply assume that there is a problem, freeing up more time to work through the solution.  This form is useful for specialist conferences (everyone at a cardiac conference knows that heart attacks kill), or for controversial topics (like climate change) where you want to move past the controversy and brainstorm solutions.
·      Two-by-four from the left2: Lead your audience down a familiar path (such as an accepted hypothesis or model), then “hit” them with new data that leads things in a new direction.
·      Hero/villain: Create a villain – this could be a person, a disease, or a problem in the field that has vexed people for years, and show how the “hero” (you, someone else, a new drug) conquers the villain.  This is a great format for public talks to a lay audience.
·      Character development/conflict:  Is there a big conflict in your field, with groups of scientists advocating specific positions?  Set up the conflict (and tell your audience about the characters), then show new data that helps settle the conflict, or steers it in a new direction.  Warning: don’t use names if the “characters” are in the room, unless you are very senior or you know them well enough to gauge their reactions!

What’s your favorite way to tell a scientific story?  Have you heard a great example of storytelling in action in a scientific talk? In upcoming posts we’ll look at a few of these story forms in more detail.

1Modified from Dr. Jennifer Schneider, Colorado School of Mines
2Dr. Julia Parrish, University of Washington

Strengthen Your Core

I’ve been working out a lot lately (I refuse to believe that I’m getting older) and many of my workouts focus on my “core” muscles (for you non-gym rats, those are your abs).  Stronger core muscles help improve our posture, support our back, and look great in a swimsuit.  Similarly, a strong core message improves our talk-it gives us a central anchor point. Without a strong core message our facts and experimental details flounder in space, just like our limbs flop around without our core muscles holding them together.

A scientific talk should have a single core message.  Not two messages, or three, but a single central point around which all facts, experiments, and data connect. This can be a specific scientific conclusion, like the rate at which a specific glacier is moving, or something more general that stems from your research.  NIH’s Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz works on cutting edge fluorescent imaging techniques, and her core message often focuses on utility of these techniques, rather then a message about a specific intracellular process.

For a shorter talk to a lay audience, the core message might not be rooted in your specific data but rather in the general data of the field.  At a recent Seattle Science on Tap session, speaker and Engage Science co-founder Rachel Mitchell rooted a plant biology talk with a core message about the wickedness of invasive plant species.  This core allowed Rachel to bring in data from many different subfields in plant biology, yet still connect with the audience.

How do you determine your single core message?  I tend to start with the end in mind-what’s the one thing I want my audience to remember?  This take-home message then becomes my core.  Some people use mind-mapping, which is a technique that allows us to explore branching ideas in a non-linear fashion so that we can compare ideas and hone in on the key ones.  The idea at the center of the mind-map becomes the core, because it anchors the other ideas together.  Mind-mapping is becoming increasingly popular as a tool to help organize one’s thoughts, and there are several software programs to help those of us that are artistically-challenged draw our map.  In fact, I recently attended a talk on time management where the presenter’s visual aids were laid out as a mind-map using one of these software tools.

In Escape from the Ivory Tower, scientist and author Nancy Baron describes the “message box” approach to planning a talk, where the core issue is laid out, surrounded by the important questions that must be answered in a talk about that issue, like “what’s the problem?” and “why should anyone care?”.  If these questions aren’t directly related to the core message at the center of the box, cross off that message and try again until you reach the true core.

So what’s your core message?  Is it strong enough to build your talk around?  Will it help your talk become leaner and more fit?  Once we find our single, strong core message, then what do we do?  Next post we’ll look at how to build a talk around that core, and how to tell stories in a scientific context.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What’s in it for them?

It reads like an old joke…someone walks into a bar.  But in this case, the audience walks into your talk.  They sit, sponge-like, ready to absorb your words of wisdom, right?  Wrong!  Even students, coerced into attending class, don’t work this way.  When the audience walks in they want to know WIIFM1?  No, that’s not a rude word-it simply means “what’s in it for me?” 

So, what is in it for them?  That depends on who “they” are, which means that when we prepare a presentation, we should begin with our specific audience in mind.  Each audience has different background knowledge, and if we give a talk either above (or below!) the audience’s level, we risk losing them.  They might be impressed with our brilliance, but they probably didn’t understand what we had to say.  I once heard a talk by a renowned researcher in human psychophysics deliver a talk to a general audience in his field.  However, his talk was really aimed at the three other people in the audience that worked in his precise area of research, while the rest of us struggled to keep up, all the while wondering if there were still cookies left in the lobby.  If he’d started with more general background, and presented his data with his audience in mind, we all would have understood his message.

Keeping the audience in mind is even more important when giving a scientific talk to the public.  Some consider public talks a “dumbing down” of the science.  Personally, I think this is insulting to the audience.  A public audience might be extremely intelligent, just not well-versed in the details of our individual fields, just like I’m a biologist who would have a hard time following the minutiae of macroeconomics or particle physics.  Is it important for the audience to grasp every step in a cell signaling pathway in order to understand that signaling goes awry in many types of tumors?  Does the audience need to understand the derivation of each equation to appreciate the predictions of climate change models? When we begin with the audience in mind we focus on what they need to know in order to understand our core message.  What core message, you ask?  That’s the subject of the next post…

1Gilman, AD and KE Berg (1995) Get to the Point: How to Say What You Mean and Get What You Want.  Kendall/Hunt Publishing, Dubuque, IA.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

(Not) Talking like a scientist

I was listening to NPR the other day (no shock there - I am a scientist). The radio host had a number of guest experts on genetically modified food - both plants and animals - and was attempting to engage the experts in a spirited discussion of the pros and cons of having transgenic organisms in the human food chain. I say “attempting”, because the experts were doing what we scientists so often do - talking science.

I’m a biologist, and I’ve created transgenic animals (although I’ve never tried to eat my green-glowing zebrafish!).  I had to concentrate hard to figure out what the scientists on NPR were talking about. I can’t imagine what the listening experience was like for a member of the public - they would probably just change the channel. Why is it that we scientists find it so hard to talk like normal people?

Marine biologist, author, and movie director Randy Olson addresses this issue in his book, “Don’t be Such a Scientist”, where he encourages us to drop the science-speak and just talk to people. It’s not so easy -we’re conditioned from a young and impressionable (grad student) age to use big words and to sound impressive. And it’s true that often those big words are more precise, convey more nuance, than everyday words, and that those big scientific words are appropriate when talking to our colleagues.
Problem is, I think we get so used to talking this way that it’s hard to shift our thinking and our word choice when we attempt to engage the lay public. The bigger problem, though, emerges when we only talk like scientists - that same lay public tunes us out, changes the channel, and misses important scientific findings that can have a real impact on their daily lives…like genetically modified organisms bred for human consumption.

I end this post with a pledge, say it with me now, “I will attempt to truly communicate with the 99.99% of the planet that doesn’t have a scientific degree.” OK, so I made that figure up, but you get the idea. In future posts we’ll look at how to actually uphold this pledge, covering topics like composing an elevator (or happy hour!) speech, delivering our presentations with (gasp) genuine enthusiasm, and the ins and outs of a good Q&A session, both as the speaker and the questioner. Stay tuned!

This post was first published at AAAS MemberCentral.