By Ruenda Loots

“I am a professional arm wrestler.”

Talking science is a tough business
Talking science is a tough business

This is my new answer to “So, what do you do for a living?”

Other options include: “Unfortunately, that information is classified” or “Nothing. I don’t believe in working.”

I’m sure all three will be met with awkward silences but it will be a nice change to the normal ritual of

“I’m doing a PhD in biochemistry”

“So, how’s about this weather?”

I know ‘PhD’ is a dirty, three-letter word but it shouldn’t shut conversation down. As a PhD student you are on the cusp of something ground-breaking – surely that should stimulate some interesting debate or at least trump small talk about weather events? (Unless your research is on cyclones, weather patterns or the adaptations of beetles to climate change, then weather-talk is fine).

After the most recent “PhD weather” incident at a braai, I tried to figure out what causes this pattern. The most common trend I identified was the “science is for smart people only” misconception. There are two sides to this coin: the school system is partly to blame, but scientists can be a snooty bunch and sometimes excluded others from their ‘smartness’. Side note: although I include all fields of research under the science umbrella, I know that my fellow natural scientists are mostly to blame for boring unsuspecting victims at snack tables.

At school, science is often reduced to a correct solution at the back of the text book and the kids who do well in science are seen as “separate” – NERD ALERT, right? I aced Science so I was labelled ‘smart’- but that’s not the only ‘smart’ there is. In fact, I score highest in naturalist, intrapersonal and linguistic intelligences and only 60% in the logical/mathematical category (what kind of smart are you?).

I’m only 60% science smart
I’m only 60% science smart

And as a ‘smart’ kid, I did NOT enjoy science. It was boring! Far removed from how incredibly-awesomely-fascinating it really is. Science is all around us, waiting to be uncovered and understood. At its core science is creative and “although you can’t give someone a creativity injection”, it is possible to create an environment where creativity and curiosity are encouraged (credit to Sir Ken Robinson). A science classroom should be a laboratory where children are encouraged to engage all their senses. Want to learn about electrical currents and resistance? Build a robot or take an appliance apart (with your parents’ permission, of course). If a teacher can relate the curriculum-required content to real-world applications, science becomes less “something out there” and more “oh, that’s how it works!” Nature is a free, limitless source of science lessons; all you have to do is go outside, observe and ask “why?” – but more on nature’s genius in a future post.

And then there’s the snooty science crowd. Boy, we sure know how to stifle curiosity with our jargon-filled journals, graphs that go on for days and 44-slide presentations that contain only 3 pictures! Whether we mean to or not, we often create a space where people don’t feel safe to ask “what does that mean?” or “why is that important?” for fear of sounding stupid. The irony is that as scientists we all feel stupid at some point and it is a really good thing (read this brilliant one-pager on the importance of stupidity in scientific research). We should learn to communicate our ‘productive stupidity’ and our research in ways that are accessible and clear to the general public. Why? Because:

  • The people at the snack table are probably funding your bursary and/or research through their hard-earned tax contributions.
  • Your research must have some value aside from satisfying one person’s curiosity (why else do it?).
  • The best way to test whether you really understand your own research is to be able to explain it to your grandmother and eight-year old niece in ways they can understand.
  • You might even have a “eureka” moment when you look at your research through the eyes of an outsider.

So how do we change it to “PhdWow, tell me more”? We become science communicators: We share our research with enthusiasm, openness and in normal words. We invite questions. After all, we are just ordinary people doing unusual jobs. For example, one student in our research group studies the protein content of ostrich semen. Ordinary guy. Very unusual job. Let’s just say he draws some laughs when he talks about sample collections at a braai!

And we learn to laugh at ourselves by shedding our ‘smarty pants’ (or ‘smarty coats’) like this:

So when asked what I do, I vow to smile and say:

“I study the incredible microscopic cities of bacteria. They’re a lot like us, you know?”

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