Or: How to come out as a scientist to the public, your friends and family, when the latter paid for your degree and the former are paying for your current research, and all are slightly against the idea anyway because they were really hoping to get discounted wormers. Niche but translatable, like many PhDs!
Guest contributor Sophie Regnault
Having started my PhD in evolutionary biomechanics a couple of years ago after a brief stint as a vet, one of the biggest challenges I’ve found is people’s attitude to science – the teenage, kiss-your-teeth, you’re-not-my-real-dad attitude.
Inside the Ivory Tower (our lab is at ground level, so perhaps Ivory Bungalow) other post-grads accept that my work is (probably) worthwhile, or they are suffering enough imposter syndrome themselves not to care. On the outside, people sometimes think that what I do isn’t worth it at all. Questions like “How is that important?”, “Why aren’t you doing something that benefits society?”, “When are you going to stop being a perpetual student and start contributing?” are responses to my job description.
Encountering this public attitude (at pubs, weddings, children’s birthday parties) is often the first experience we get of communicating science, and it’s an ideal practice ground. Being able to communicate science well is a vital skill because good communication perpetuates the value of science in society, defends funding, awakens new generations, and ultimately keeps knowledge alive (plus makes people think my job is worthwhile!).
With that in mind, here are some observations from my (many) attempts at informal science communication.
Learn from the best.
Pay attention to the hooks and storytelling techniques that proper science journalists use. In my case, “living fossil” (referring to an extant animal that appears identical to ancient fossilised forms) piqued a lot of interest, even if it’s not the best term scientifically (since it misleadingly implies that such animals have stopped evolving or are primitive). Nonetheless, these hooks are used because they are effective, and because familiar words or metaphors can give people an accessible way into the topic. But familiarity has its downsides, too. Be aware of spouting too many clichés; they’re quickly boring and challenge nobody.
Make it visual
Visual aids are another great way to draw people in. If there’s a cool photo or clip on your phone that you can easily show off, you can generate a small audience. They don’t always have to be your own; take advantage of what other scientists are producing (although always credit them). When I was banging my head against a wall trying to learn an x-ray animation technique, showing friends published videos from the pros was the most useful tool for explaining what I was working on (and their impressed responses were also motivation for me to keep trying!).
Mix it up
You might notice that a particular question or comment always comes up, which can help you figure out which of your responses is the most satisfying. However it’s also a reminder to mix up your pitch – you don’t want to bore or patronise someone with a one-size-fits-all script; you want to engage them in a conversation. Learn to be comfortable with gaps of silence, and let them drive the exchange. If they don’t, try not to become discouraged and fizzle out halfway through a sentence. Giving examples of the questions you’re investigating (“How has this evolved?”) will often prompt some thoughtful answers that you can explore together.
I’m still working on my ability to communicate science well, and probably will be for the rest of my academic career. It’s a skill that’s never truly mastered; there’s always something to be learned and (luckily for us) infinite opportunities to try.
Sophie is a runner-up for the London 2015 Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition, and is a qualified vet. She’s spent some time in charity practice before returning to the Royal Veterinary College in 2013 to undertake a PhD. Currently halfway through, she is researching the evolution and biomechanics of sesamoid bones using a variety of techniques, including museum studies, dissection, diagnostic imaging, histology, kinematics and computer modelling. She also enjoys blogging, science writing and outreach and hopes to continue in a career in academia and science writing.