Getting your message out there

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Communication skills are essential for researchers. Image: thestar.com

Science communication has come a long way since the days of Ivory Tower syndrome. Now researchers have been forced from the lab, blinking uncertainly in the spotlight of online forums, media platforms (social or otherwise) and, in some cases, the blogosphere.

This can only be for the greater good but only if some rules are obeyed. Or, at the very least, understood enough to manipulate them. This is the hardest part of science communication, where we researchers must realise that our findings aren’t inherently interesting to the broader public. This is where we have to put effort into making other people care.

Here are some points to consider for getting your message across:

  1. Remember WIIFM

‘What’s in it for me?’ is the first subconscious thought of any audience. Why should they care? If they don’t care, they will very quickly tune out and your message will be lost. Think about the implications of your results in the broader sense. Maybe there are financial impacts or health effects for example. Focus on this angle and the message is more likely to get through.

  1. What’s the point of interest?

Researchers love data but most people love stories. To make your message stick, find the story in your data. It could be a human interest story about people your research seeks to help. It could have a link, however obscure, to a celebrity or popular TV show. Or, ideally, it has some sort of conflict. Baddies fighting goodies and the goodies win in the end. These sorts of stories are far more interesting and more likely to stick than an all too happy good news story.

  1. Short but strong

In a world of Twitter, key messages need to be as succinct as possible. Every word counts and some words are more powerful than others. Really consider word use to give every word the chance to ram your message home. Don’t use long words when short ones will say the same thing in fewer syllables. Long words only serve to exhaust the audience before they get to your key message. Here are some great examples of how to use better words.

All this effort in making results interesting to people who don’t like data can be exhausting. But considering that it’s usually taxpayers who both fund the research and benefit from it, greater understanding of research outcomes is ultimately better for everyone.

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On the brink of greatness

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Research papers can lead to Nobel Prizes, but usually they just lead to more research. Image: http://www.japantimes.co.jp   

One of the key things l love about my job as a research scientist is data. Months of slog work in the lab produces great swathes of data and finally getting a chance to process it and understand what is happening is pure happiness. Particularly when combined with varying concentrations of coffee and chocolate.

This is a particular characteristic of all research scientists, I’m sure. (And yes, I am aware of the irony of proclaiming a love of data and then ignoring any such data to make sweeping generalisations about a large portion of the population. But it’s for the good of making me feel more normal so I’m willing to go with it.)

Processing data is the point at which we can see if all our efforts and hypotheses have made any inroads into the unknown. If they have, either by proving or disproving a hypothesis, it is triumphant.

The process involves turning spreadsheets into works of art, although admittedly a peculiar brand of art. I enjoy turning reams of numbers in to very pretty graphs and, ideally, correlations and trend lines. Constructing those is rewarding on a level that is second only to writing the paper.

A research project isn’t finished until it is published in a peer-reviewed journal. At least, that’s my opinion. I know many scientists who disagree with me on this one. For them, the true joy lies in discovering something new and broadening their knowledge but getting the word out there to the broader communities of scientists and non-scientists is nothing but a chore.

But publications are the bread and butter of research and while the peer-reviewed process might be flawed, it is still the best system for ensuring the majority of science is carried out in a reproducible manner and that the conclusions are matched by the data.

Now, after many, many months of producing data, I have finally had a chance to sit down and process it. And it worked! I have evidence that supports my hypothesis and I have made tiny inroads in hitherto unknown regions of knowledge.

Now all I have to do is write the paper, get the co-authors (my managers and other people who helped produce the data) to read it, get them to agree with how it should be written, get the reviewers to agree that the work is of sufficient quality, incorporating all possible controls and blanks, and voila! Another science paper published. Greatness will be mine! I might just go call the Nobel Prize committee and give them a heads up. I’m sure they’ll want to know.

In reality, even without a Nobel Prize, it’s being able to shine a torch onto new knowledge after months of slog work in the lab is what makes all the effort worthwhile.

Coffee for the good of science

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Coffee breaks help generate a rapport between colleagues and avoid the need to settle disputes with cage matches. Image: mmaweekly.com

 

Locked away in our laboratories, researchers tussle for access to equipment and resources. The overriding sensation is a tense mutual respect. We generally acknowledge each other’s space and equipment but this respect is tenuous and can breakdown in an instant.

Something can go slightly wrong on a project and suddenly next week’s deadline is ominously close and that person needs all the equipment RIGHT NOW. This then encroaches on other people’s deadlines as resources they have booked and planned to use are suddenly inaccessible, and the whole ‘mutual respect’ thing descends into cage matches.

That isn’t quite true. We haven’t got a cage in the lab yet but I’m sure it’s included in next year’s budget.

This is one of the key reasons why research institutes usually have a ‘social club’. It’s a way of forcing people to get to know each other outside the lab in friendly environments and even footing. The same can be said for such activities as ‘lunch’ or ‘coffee breaks’.

Anything that involves the coming together of people – preferably in combination with food and drink intake – can improve relations.

As science becomes more multidisciplinary, being able to get along with other people who are not quite in the same team or have the same objectives is an increasingly important skill. Getting out of the lab and gathering around food with colleagues is a simple but effective method for creating better relationships and building stronger teams.

So go on, put down that pipette and have a coffee. It’s for the good of science.

Simple science can be clever science

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Science sometimes requires skills like Macgyver’s. Image credit: comicbook.com

Science has made leaps and bounds in recent decades with the development of sophisticated instruments that measure deeper and deeper into our world. Discoveries can now be made that confirm the existence of gravitational waves, the structure of proteins and everything in between. This is a golden age of scientific exploration.

And yet there isn’t a laboratory in the entire world that could function adequately without such equipment as a marker pen.

When we talk science and stand in awe at our capabilities and technological advances, it’s easy to forget that much of science uses very rudimentary equipment. Particularly in applied science where a new project with industry means having to measure a characteristic of a real world sample right now.

This includes, for example, the level of sediment in a tank. How do we measure it? Get out a marker pen and draw a line on the tank where the sediment comes up to. Genius.

Or when we need to compare the filterability of samples too small for the real method, how do we do it? Pour the sample through the filter paper and mark the receiver flask with the volume filtered every 10 seconds. Marker pen wins again!

The genius of early scientists was in developing ways measure the world around them. Today determining the structure of an unknown molecule, for example, is very straightforward, as long as you have a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer and mass spectrometer handy and really, who doesn’t? But a century ago this was a real challenge and involved a massive array of indirect measures to get the final structure. And some genius. That always helps.

Even in modern labs, it is an invaluable skill to be able to develop practical and reproducible methods on the fly using everyday, inexpensive lab equipment. Sophisticated equipment is essential but expensive and any cost savings to a research budget is applauded.

Particularly if there is a solid element of ingenuity associated with it. Like rigging up a large hadron collider in the basement using rubber bands and lengths of pipe. I think that might have actually been a Macgyver episode.

While high tech science paves our way to a deeper understanding of the universe, we must remember that it is also the simple things in science that help push that knowledge forward.

Death at every turn

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Wolverine-like powers are a side-effect of safety inductions. Image: screenrant.com

I no longer fear death as I have recently become immortal. I can walk through battle fields unscathed, sky dive sans parachute and car surf without fear of injury. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s the case. It certainly feels like safety is pulsing through my veins now that I’ve undergone a safety induction.

The main point of a safety induction is to make people stop and think of everything that can hurt or kill when undertaking a particular task or even when being in a particular location.

At a winery, there are large machines known as ‘crushers’ that can effortlessly do to an arm what they do to grapes; huge open vats of bubbling, seething liquids that can suck you under like something out of a B grade horror movie; and the rolling potential agony of the forklift. Not only does a forklift have pointed prongs of pain at the front but the potential to driving over you when reversing and can drop an unbalanced load on your head.

In the lab there are chemicals that can kill instantly or slow and painfully or cause irreparable damage like blindness. A quick scan of any commonly-used lab solvent reveals the stuff of nightmares. Danger is the norm in the lab.

Now that I have been inducted into the realm of safety, I can see hazards everywhere. That crack in the footpath is a potential trip hazard and should be fixed immediately. There are cars driving at speeds that can kill an unwary pedestrian should anyone accidentally cross the road whilst texting so the speed limit should be lowered. A tree near a building might cause grievous scratches to anyone not ducking low enough under the branch and should be cut down.

This is a dangerous world and no matter how hard we try to eliminate all dangers more just keep cropping up. Perhaps a better solution is to introduce safety inductions for life. A proper walk through and checklist of all the things that can kill you at any given moment, wherever you are and whatever you are doing.

Similar to the brilliant Dumb Ways to Die YouTube clips but with a form to sign stating that you Acknowledge and Accept the Risks of Living and understand that Not Complying with the Safety Rules of Life will result in you being Removed from Life permanently.

Maybe then we can finally feel safe and in control. But maybe not to the level of actually car surfing.