Good science communication is a key force in driving change, but finding common ground can be a challenge – especially across linguistic barriers, says Jacqueline Gamboa.
Young scientists are sometimes asked to explain their science to the public as if they were talking to a grandparent. For me, that meant boiling down my studies in DNA structure to reach my grandmother, who has a 4th-grade education and Spanish as her first language. The challenge of demystifying my science was daunting.
For my PhD, I studied how DNA gets damaged. For all its magnificent ability to transmit mountains of genetic information from one generation to the next, DNA breaks pretty regularly. When that happens, the cell machinery often steps in to repair it. Sometimes, though, the damaged DNA can be passed on to the next generation.
My research focused on the formation of “Interstrand DNA Cross-link,” which blocks a key step in DNA duplication and often results in cell death. The cancer drug Cisplatin, for example, takes advantage of this in its mechanism of action.
When I started my studies, the very first paper my advisor gave me to read was Thomas Lindahl’s 1977 DNA damage paper. In 2015, when I was a couple of years into my PhD, Lindahl won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in the field. While I’m sure it was not the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences intention to help a student in the U.S. explain her research to her 80-year-old grandmother, this announcement was a turning point in the relationship with my abuelita and family.
After the prize, my family thought my research was cool and important for the first time; after all, el premio Nobel had just been awarded to people in my field. This resulted in my family asking me to explain my own work – “que son esos cross-links?” – and how it was (remotely) connected to such a prestigious award. At first, I failed miserably; I used all the technical terms that had been drilled into me.
The next time, I’d practiced my communication. But I’d practiced in English, so I couldn’t start describing the topic in Spanish. How do you say “DNA” or “bond” or “helix” in Spanish?
Third time’s the charm, though. I still couldn’t figure out how to say “helix” or “bond”, so I had to find a way to show them. I needed a metaphor.
I pulled a magnet off of my parent’s refrigerator. Despite the magnetic attraction, you can remove the magnets as much as you want and they’ll stick to the fridge again. Similarly, two strands of DNA can separate and reunite. However, if I take a magnet, add a drop of super glue and stick it back onto the fridge, that bond becomes much stronger. When I pull again, either the fridge or the magnet will be damaged or I won’t be able to separate them at all. That is what cross-links do to DNA. They prevent the strands from separating, which causes the cell to die or to be damaged and in need of repair.
Did my family understand my cross-link research? You bet. Did my mom let me demonstrate using super glue on our family fridge? Absolutely not. But the lesson was learned – my family knew what I did all day.
The magnets helped me and mi familia connect in a meaningful way. I’d finally been able to explain my previously-opaque research, and more importantly, I did it in Spanish. It was easy and simple and – for me – revolutionary. Even after I was back in the lab, they were able to tell others what my research was about.
It’s been a few months since I graduated. My experience with my family led to an additional chapter in my dissertation, on explaining my work to the public (I got my inspiration from Dr. Shakhashiri). But wires still cross in my brain sometimes. I share my story because I want my fellow bilingual, multilingual, and even monolingual scientists to think about science communication differently.
If we want society to change its perception of science, we need to make science more accessible. We could can start by demystifying it with our abuelitas. After that, talking to the man-on-the-street is a piece of cake.
Jacqueline Gamboa is a bilingual scientist working at the junction of chemistry and biology; she speaks two languages, English and Spanish. She continues to study DNA damage and is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University.