Field of Science

On the Importance of Science Communication

One thing we often try to teach our graduate students and post-docs, and I believe to a lesser extent our undergraduates, is the importance of being able to communicate science to a general audience. Usually this training is done as part of a research program, which I thin is a mistake. Undergraduates, who are our largest population of trainees, may not be in a research laboratory or not have a laboratory experience that promotes interaction with the public. I believe one of the greatest societal services we (college/university professors) can accomplish is to teach undergraduates how to explain science to society in a competent and confident manner.

In one of my courses students present an aspect of the paper to the rest of the class. However, based on some student feedback and my own goal of teaching promotion of science to the public, this year I am having the student presenters give a 30 second synopsis of the paper that explains the main findings and why these findings are important to a lay audience.

Why is this important? The answer to this question is the point of this post. I spent most of today traveling to a scientific meeting in Calgary. For eight hours, I was in an airport or on an airplane. During the last leg of my travel, which was the longest, a woman sat next to me. We each had our own books and I had my iPod so there was no communication between us. At least there was no communication for most of the flight. Towards the end of this leg, a flight came around offering coffee, to which I said 'yes, please'. After getting my coffee, I asked my aisle mate, if she was worried about getting hot coffee spilled on her when the flight attendant was pouring it. She noted it was a slight concern....and that broke the ice. Shortly thereafter she noted the book I was reading and asked if it was related to a book she read several years previously. I noted that it was and that I had read the same book which got me interested in the series. After some additional small talk, we got around to where we were headed and the purpose of our trip.

I said I was traveling on business and going to a scientific conference...
"What do you do research on?" she asked.
"A fungus that causes disease in people." 
"Which one?" 
"Candida albicans, it lives on the skin and in the intestinal tract of everyone, and is the cause of yeast infections in women." was my standard reply. Maybe you're thinking that bringing up yeast infections (shorthand for vaginal yeast infections) is not the best approach. I disagree, basically all women know what yeast infections are (as do most adult men), and most are familiar with the name Candida albicans. By coming out and saying it directly, you are not unintentionally patronizing the person you are talking to, plus the vagina is not as scary and taboo as society wants us to believe. 
"I know about Candida, is that serious?" she asked. 
"Not really, it lives in all of us normally, but if you are immunocompromised..." 
"I have a friend who had an organ transplant and the doctors were worried about Candida..." 
"Yes, people who are undergoing chemotherapy or had an organ transplant are at risk from a Candida infection. It's a big problem in these patients, but not so much for healthy people, although it can be an annoyance occasionally in some women."
She then started asking me about Candida and why it caused disease. Eventually she told me about her 7 year old son who was suffering from a fungal infection in the cornea of his eye. She told me what the doctors had said the cause was and how to treat it and asked me what I thought. I, of course, told her I was not a medically trained doctor, but that what she told me was in keeping with my knowledge. Then we started talking about these different fungi and how they caused disease and even were able to grow within us. She clearly had some background knowledge in biology, but the important thing is that we were able to talk. I was able to answer some questions and tell her some interesting things she hadn't heard before, and I was able to hear about her son and understand the anguish that comes with being a parent concerned about their child, even when that anguish was over an understood and readily treatable disease.

If I had gone into extreme depth and detail, she may have been turned off, ending our conversation. Maybe not, but we did in fact have a great conversation for the last part of our journey. I was at ease and ready to talk about my research with a lay person. The same could not be said of my interaction with the customs official. When asked abut my business in Canada, I said to attend a scientific meeting. This was fine, but when I was asked about what the meeting was about, what I worked on, and what I was presenting, my answers got more and more detailed and specific. I answered like someone talking to a person in my field and not an immigration officer. I realized I was not making sense, and tried to use less specific language, but it made things worse trying to go back and forth between lay person language and specialized scientist language. My problem here was dealing with a person in authority, which I associate with a leader in my field, not a person ensuring that people are entering their country legally.

So in the course of a few hours, I think I was an effective science communicator 1/2 times. Clearly there is room for improvement. However, these interactions serve to show how easy it is to engage he public on scientific issues and how important it is to be an effective science advocate. We should be spending as much time teaching our students how to communicate science as we do teaching them the facts they need to know. If we continue to fail informing the public, there will soon be no reason to teach the facts.

1 comment:

TheBrummell said...

If you find an effective strategy for communicating with customs / immigration officials, please let me know. I think they fall into a special category, because there's a clear and potentially adversarial goal in those encounters: you want to be let into the country, with your possessions and dignity intact, while the official might or might not want to ruin your day. Those encounters are among the most stressful I ever have.