Dancing science

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Dancing is the next level in science communication. Image: nytimes.com

Dancing is not a required skill for studying science. In fact, whole science degrees can be awarded without assessing a single pirouette. And yet recent years have seen a groundswell of people attempting science communication through dance. Can this really be good for science?

Science communication is a growing field with more people talking and writing science than ever before. Explaining complex concepts in short and easy-to-understand formats is an important skill for scientists and some brilliant competitions have been set up, including Fresh Science.

While the idea is to encourage PhD graduates to distil the key messages from their research for a non-expert audience, this can be demoralising for a new PhD graduate. Having years of challenging and detailed research condensed into a three minute presentation is heart breaking.

Can there be another way? Bizarrely, yes. But it’s not necessarily more satisfying.

Instead of explaining your thesis using something practical, like words, there is growing interest in Dance Your Thesis competitions. This takes science communication to the next level. Not only do researchers need writing and speaking skills to do better science, it looks like we’re going to need to be good dancers as well.

I am not a coordinated dancer. Not that I let that stop me, but generally it’s in the public’s best interest to keep such urges behind closed doors. Without any background in formal dance training, I struggle with why anyone would think that dancing a thesis would be a good idea. I wouldn’t even know where to begin with mine. Aside from tap dancing the names of bioactive compounds in Morse code.

And yet the idea is has resonated with people around the world, including Sydney and Munich. Last year’s winner has over 160,000 views on YouTube, which is at least 159,998 views more than my thesis. This idea has merit.

Dancing science may or may not be bringing science to whole new audiences. But it is getting a lot of public interest and it certainly helps scientists think about the bigger picture about what their results mean. And on top of that, it’s a lot of fun.

Telling stories for science

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Humans are great story tellers. Always have been and always will be. No matter what happens. Image: newyorker.com

Humans are story tellers. Some might say that is what separates us from other animals. Well, that and IPods. Particularly since even insects have language and it seems that everyone is using tools. Homo habilis is not as impressive as Homo fictus, the story tellers. Unfortunately this message hasn’t gotten through to scientists.

We all have a story, so writers like to tell us and then don’t give us any ideas of how to go about extracting that story. At some point during science education – I blame the PhD – we scientists lose the ability to tell stories. Conversely we become very adept at stringing facts together and critically analysing details.

But stringing together a story is a complete mystery. This is very problematic when it comes to trying to communicate scientific results to a non-scientific audience. I can spot a spelling mistake or inappropriate apostrophe use a mile off, but figuring out the correct sequence of words to turn an idea into a story is a whole different challenge. And it’s the story that most people will remember, not the details.

Practicing is the best way to get better at anything and this includes telling stories. Just telling friends about something that happened on the weekend is a good start – and, of course, this is yet another reason to engage in communal coffee times.

Even when writing scientific papers, having a story in mind helps get the message across. This simple idea makes the paper flow more logically and is easier to follow than the randomly- strewn-together series of facts that is the alternative.

Knowing what the key message of the paper also makes writing the paper easier. Particularly in nominating what is important to include and needs to be dealt with before publication and what can be reallocated to that wonderful section of ‘future research’. This helps keep on topic and to the point and that’s also good for the reader.

Stories are great for science, both for writing articles for other specialists and for engaging non-specialists. We just need to remember how to tell them.

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.

Five New Year’s resolutions worth keeping

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Running. One of those admirable New Year’s resolutions that fade by about January. Image credit: colettelettieri.com

 

The time of year has arrived to break all the resolutions of the New Year. A couple of weeks of eating well and exercising regularly are surely sufficient to meet the well-meaning criteria we set out on December 31st. And now there’s the whole rest of the year to make ourselves feel guilty enough to make new promises next December.

This year I have been incredibly efficient with my new year’s resolutions. I went for a run* on New Year’s eve AND New Year’s day, effectively achieving two years’ worth of resolutions within a couple of days. On top of that, I have been snacking on fruit** for the whole year – up until last night when I found another packet of chocolate hidden at the back of the pantry.

Aside from these health-related-and-thus-completely-unrealistic resolutions, there are some resolutions that are really worth keeping. Here are 5 things worth doing this year:

1. Contribute to Wikipedia

Ever Google-d your research topic and brought up a cringe-worthy entry in Wikipedia? I have. It made me sad. But instead of wallowing in sorrow, this year I resolve to make the change and add my (comparatively) knowledgeable voice to THE most popular go-to reference source on the planet.

Adding or improving entries in Wikipedia is the best way to get accurate knowledge out there.

2. Call out bad science

So many information sources spout blatant rubbish as ‘fact’. Some are harmless, others are potentially dangerous. Last year I happened upon an anti-GMO article that was full of scare-mongering rather than a considered and factual argument. I met with the editor, explained why the article was incorrect and they generously agreed to publish an article based on actual science.

It may be a small thing, but in a world of peer-reviewed information, there is no place for bad science.

3. Publish that back-log of data

Research has been going solidly for, like, ever, and most of my time has been spent generating data and coordinating projects. This year it’s about time I sit down and assess the data and get those papers written.

After all, if the data isn’t published, the knowledge doesn’t exist.

4. Tell people about research

Non-scientists really don’t know what the life of a researcher is like and many don’t understand scientific processes. There are so many science communication programs around – like national science week or science in the pub – it’s easy to get involved and tell interested audiences about science in real life.

5. Have coffee breaks with colleagues

Ok, admittedly this is an easy one. But occasionally when work pressures are on, it is useful to remember to stop and take a break with a coffee and colleagues, and discuss research problems, safety issues, the weekend, the weather or the latest reality TV show. Return to work mentally refreshed and with a new perspective.

Now all I need is to make these resolutions more of a reality than my ridiculous ideas about eating well and exercising.

 

*Some might consider ‘walk’ more accurate. Or, at best, ‘shuffle-stagger-walk’.

**Raspberry-swirl ice cream counts as fruit, right?

Vanquishing the evil mad scientist image

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Scientists aren’t all like this.

There is a palpable mistrust of science in the wider public and we scientists are largely to blame. Almost everyone uses the products of research everyday and yet trust issues against scientists have spawned and nurtured anti-science movements. Great efforts have been made to improve the scientist image, most notably the highly recommended Super Science Friends vimeo clip, but there is still much more we can do.

Mistrust of science is not ill-founded. Epic failures of ethics and the dearth of safety assessments in the past have left lasting legacies on many families as well as the environment. The atom bomb, chemical warfare and the repercussions of thalidomide are but a few events that have shaped public perception of scientists.

Enduring fictional mad scientists like Frankenstein and Moreau are also bad for our image. Although, in fairness, research scientists are a bit mad. I always maintained that is a direct product of having to do a PhD to become a research scientist. My hair was never this grey before the PhD, I’m sure.

The time has come for us scientists to change our image. Regulations for safety and ethics have improved exponentially to prevent the repeat of past disasters, and there have been monumental advancements across all areas of science, including health, ecosystem protection and food production.

Here are a few simple things that we can do to reclaim some trust in science:

  1. Teach scientific processes

Not everyone was taught how to assess data and weigh up evidence. These critical skills are the first port of call for getting a broader audience to engage with science. Improving the level of understanding about how scientists draw conclusions will make them more convincing.

  1. Be bold but accurate

Whenever results are presented to a broader audience, be bold in your statements but also accurate. Remember that common science terms like “this suggests…” and “this may cause…” just make it seem like we don’t know what we’re talking about and the message will be lost. People want answers and when scientists don’t deliver them confidently, they look to other authorities and this includes charlatans.

  1. Tell a story

Nothing engages an audience more than stories. Use stories to show the impacts of your research in a broader sense and include emotional interests like families, the community and the environment as well as enjoyment of lifestyle, of technology, of food and wine. Keep the underlying message straightforward and broad.

  1. Give science a friendly face

Scientists traditionally aren’t good communicators and for many years they were kept away from the public and not allowed to speak to the media. This also hasn’t done much for our image. To build trust, we need to step outside of the scientist caricature and show that we are just people. We work and eat and sleep and care for our families, the environment and the community. And sometimes we do other cool stuff. Recently there has been a trend on science company websites to show their employees as more than just scientists and this is just the sort of thing we need.

With time and communal effort, the evil scientist image will be vanquished. Then all we have to do is take down those evil corporations…

Avoiding assumptions and scientific faux pas

Never confuse Star Trek fans with Star Wars fans

The first rule of science is ‘question everything, assume nothing’. Even if your results turn out exactly as you hypothesized, it is still not real until it has been repeated in triplicate with all controls accounted for. This basic principle seems to be alone in the world of science.

Out in the real world, the idea of ‘question everything’ is certainly not applied. This obviously includes much of the information gleaned from the internet and also those quirky one line “did you know?” pseudo-facts in magazines or drink bottles.

It is also surprisingly rare in everyday social interactions. I overheard a conversation recently:

“You’re a scientist,” said Person A to Person B, “so you like Star Trek, right?” An awkward silence ensued, much like after asking a woman when the baby is due without first establishing that she is pregnant. Or being asked which part of England you’re from when you are actually Australian. Or vice versa.

Person B scoffed at the idea. And then changed the subject to rave about the upcoming Star Wars movie.

A tip for non-science fiction aficionados: Never make assumptions about a person’s science fiction preferences. It will end badly. Usually with a Jedi mind trick, a Vulcan nerve pinch or, worse, a lengthy explanation as to why one is infinitely better than the other.*

Many people also make assumptions about scientists themselves. On one hand they assume scientists know everything and on the other they presume scientist have not even thought to check the basics.

I’ve had many fascinating conversations with non-scientists that included topics like “You’re a scientist so you should know this…” No, I’m an organic chemist not a zoologist, sorry. Or “It’s not global warming it’s just solar activity…” Because climate scientists didn’t think to check that first.

And this old gem that keeps resurfacing: “NASA scientists spent a billion dollars to make a pen that writes in space and they could have just used a pencil!” Except that pencils can be hazardous in zero-gravity, particularly when surrounded by lots of expensive equipment.

Avoiding assumptions and questioning everything is a first line of defense against the spread of myths and misinformation. And it’s a good way to avoid sci-fi nerd rage.

*For the record, I’m a huge fan of both and will talk a lot about them at every opportunity.

Standing out from the crowd

Standing out from the crowd is becoming more essential for successful research.

The old adage “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is a lie. It’s what you know and who you know that counts. Particularly in research. The foundation of research is knowledge and solid experimental designs and definitely you need to know your stuff. But there’s also no point doing marvellous research if your data is never published, never read or never cited. It’s also now essential to know people to get the collaborations to get the grants to start research.

This is where self-promotion and networking become critical. Happily there are many avenues for making your work stand out in a data-drenched world.

Mainstream media

Believe it or not, researchers will pay attention to mainstream media. This can be a really useful way of telling people about the great work you’re doing as well as hearing about what other research is out there. A snippet on the nightly news, a feature on a radio station or a stint on one of the science shows can get you noticed by someone outside your field in areas that you may not even know exist.

The best way is to pitch a story to a journalist. Preferably use an angle about something that is currently being discussed in the media to which your work somehow – no matter how loosely – relates.

Also let a journalist know if you’re doing something that just sounds awesome. Like using the Synchrotron for wine research, for example. Or going on an expedition to the Arctic tundra to find new bioactive peptides that may be the next cure for heart disease.

A media release after you’ve published your research in a peer-reviewed journal can still be a good way to go but put some thought into the timing of the media release to get you bigger bang for you buck. It may be worth holding off on releasing the news to coincide with a big event or conference in your field at a time when more people in the field are likely to be tuning into the mainstream media.

Social media

Published a paper recently? Tweet about it! Doing something cool? Take a photo and Instagram it! There are so many avenues for social media it is a missed opportunity not to utilize them.

The more people know that you’re working in a particular area the more likely they are to seek out your work amongst the – probably – hundreds of papers in the field. And the more people who read your work, the more likely your paper is to get cited.

So do it, start a Twitter account…and use it!

Non-peer-reviewed publications

Publishing in a peer-reviewed journal is the benchmark standard of any research scientist and close attention is paid to nuanced differences in citation indices. Yet non-peered reviewed publications invite a wider readership and can therefore also be of value.

These publications can be industry journals, broader science journals like New Scientist, and even society publications for members, such the Royal Australian Chemical Institute’s rag, Chemistry Australia. It is well worth getting mentioned in these types of journals to get more traffic to your peer-reviewed publications.

Online resources

Other, less conventional publications are also of value. An industry blog can have a greater audience than a printed publication and some popular science sites such as Sciengist.com are good for broadening your readership. It is worth keeping track of which blogs are being written in your field and who is reading them.

AGMs

Crazy, I know. As well as scientific society publications, annual general meetings of these organisations can be a great way to diversify your networks and mix with people in slightly different fields. The broader your society memberships, the broader your potential collaborations and the happier the potential funding body.

Conferences

The biggest perk of working in science is the international conference. Even attending an interstate or even local conference is nothing to sneeze at. These are the biggest gatherings of researchers and the best and most important networking events. Networking is essential. Tips for doing it right can be found here.

It is always important to speak to people in your field but also really interesting to speak to people outside your field. Poster sessions are a great way of finding out what other people are doing and why. The more people you can connect with at a conference the more likely useful ideas and collaborations will come your way.

All this networking and getting noticed takes time. But it will be time well spent if a chance encounter leads to another citation, new discovery, or even that elusive successful grant application.