Have you ever tried to explain your research to someone who is not in your field? Not even a biologist, or even a scientist? It is not easy at all! Imagine explaining it to your mother or your grandmother. Every time I tried this, I was greeted with bemused expressions, followed by the conversation swiftly ending with “oh, it seems you are doing something extremely interesting” but I was quite sure they did not understand what I was trying to really get across. It seems that when we start to study or work in Science, we become “experts” in our field. We start to use incomprehensible jargon and we wrongly assume that everyone can understand us. But as my grandma could tell you, this is very wrong.
But then we met Dr. Chris Smith and the Naked Scientists for our ALKATRAS ‘Science Communication Workshop’ in September. He made us realise that we need to adjust our message to our audience. And this was exactly what we learnt: communication, describing our research to people who really do not know anything about Science. The Naked Scientists are a group that produce a science radio show and podcast with the aim to spread Science to everyone, scientists and non-scientists alike [www.thenakedscientists.com].
During the workshop we were assigned two tasks. Firstly, to be interviewed and explain our project in 90 seconds. Needless to say we all struggled at the beginning [I was the first one], using long words, words that for us are normal and common, but for other people are incomprehensible. Slowly, and with the help of Chris and his team, we started to understand how to address their questions, how to explain our research using colloquial terminology.
The second task was to prepare a 15 minutes podcast in more or less 24 hours. Filling 15 minutes on the radio talking about a scientific topic is not tough, is it? Well, that is where you are wrong! On the radio keeping track of time is not only important, it is crucial! Exceed your time and you are cut off by the producer, or worse yet, not have enough material to cover the time and sit in silence. Speaking from firsthand experience, sitting in silence does not go fast at all. My team can confirm this, we finished 2 minutes and 48 seconds prematurely. It was so awkward! We interviewed unsuspecting pedestrians throughout Cambridge city centre asking them what they know about different topics such as vaccines and thoughts on factors driving lung cancer. Once this was completed, we interviewed scientific experts to have a more professional input about our topics (vaccination, lung cancer and CRISPR-Cas9). In the end, we had a lot of fun and you can listen to our podcast on the Naked Scientists website. Actually some of us have a real talent for it, and maybe you will hear our voices on the radio one day. Judge for yourself whether we did a good job and check out the podcasts following the links below.
And what did we learn in the end? I tried one more to explain my research to my mother after this workshop. And what should I tell you, this time she looked less confused than the previous time. Maybe because she got used to my complicated stories. But I like to think I explained it better now because I learnt something new and I improved my communication skills which will also help me next time I give a talk at a conference. Regardless, my mom baked me one of her wonderful cakes afterwards, so I assume it was because she was very much impressed with my research.
You can find the podcasts here:
The big day.
The annual ERIA conference is becoming a really important event for all of us Alkatras students. Listening to seminars by pioneers in our field, having the chance to discuss directly with them and learn about the latest findings. What I liked most about this conference were the lively discussions between professors, researchers and students. Sharing different points of view, disagreeing with them and presenting my own opinion. This intense exchange of scientific concepts makes me feel that I am in the right place.
After the conference, it was our moment. In every project comes the first time to publicly present your data. This September was the first time we had to show our very own results in a poster presentation to the ERIA/ALKATRAS committee and some of the biggest scientists in the field. Such an event is always daunting, but it is also a great fun once it has started – Our results have taken us now more than a year of hard work and I am really proud of my achievements. Most important was the experience to obtain constructive feedback, advice and encouragements from our advisors.
The location of course played an important role, indeed walking around Cambridge is magical. All that history: the atmosphere of the colleges, with so many historical places and famous stories. We saw the tree outside Trinity College, which is rumored to have grown from a clipping of the famous ‘Isaac Newton Apple Tree’ – and had a pint at the Eagle Pub where Crick and Watson discussed their discovery of the double helical structure of DNA. Unfortunately they did not have the famous ‘Eagle’s DNA’ beer, so I have to come back.
Science, History and Fun: a perfect mix.
During the ERIA meeting we always learn so much, but this one was even more outstanding. We received advice from The Naked Scientists on how to improve our communication skills in an unusual way. We also received feedback and suggestions on our projects during the poster presentations from some real big shots. After a great few days we went home our separate ways, where we will continue our research. But we eagerly anticipate our next workshop in Berlin come June and will work even harder and maybe even more effectively with all the important input we obtained.