Science communication: awkard silences at the snack table

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdxBPUFOgGw

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?”

Diary of a would-be scientist: lessons from the lab

By Ruenda Loots

30 April 2015
When preparing 200 agar plates, the mind tends to wander… This morning I was reliving a recent conversation with a 17-year high school kid who was considering a career in science and wanted some advice. She wanted to know what I do as a scientist, what my average day is like and what I’ve learned so far (aside from the structures of 20 amino acids).

Goodness. What do I do? I sukkel, I think, I experiment, I think some more. My days are long but I control my schedule (well, the bacteria have some say but for the most part it’s up to me). And I have learned… ahem… that question is harder to answer. Perseverance, patience, planning, practice, more patience (the lessons are repeated until they are learnt). The big lessons are made up of smaller experiences (like pouring hundreds of agar plates) and although the small experiences aren’t particularly meaningful on their own, when viewed within the context of this loooooong journey they have changed me.

Lab life lesson #1: Be present
Or else you mess up (like this morning). I was making a dilution series of my bacterial cultures. Starting from the first test tube it goes: mix, flame, draw up, flame, close tube, take next tube, flame, squirt out, flame, close, mix. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Then the mind starts to wander… and when you come to your senses you have two tubes in your hand and no clue where in the sequence you are. Which wouldn’t have been a major problem if I had labelled each individual tube – but I hadn’t because I wanted to save time (see Lab lesson #2).

Loots 1

Perhaps the deeper lesson here is that there are no menial tasks in the lab (or in life). Each moment deserves my full attention:

accurate dilution series → accurate plate counts → accurate conclusions.

Even extra care and attention when washing test tubes may lead to better results the next time round. As Jim Elliot said, “Wherever you are – be all there.

Lab life lesson #2: Label your frikken test tubes!

Lab life lesson #3: Do the to-do list
Walking into the lab on a Monday morning with no game plan is a stress trigger. I tried to address this by making to-do lists. These lists were somewhat unrealistic in the beginning:

  1. Discover something novel.
  2. Write an article.
  3. Finish the thesis.

In order to make the lists more ‘achievable’ I would try to think of all the steps to complete Goals 1 – 3. Then the lists became long and incredibly daunting. Now I try not to over-complicate it: make a list for every day the day before (that way I know where to start in the morning). Keep it short: 5–7 items including postponed admin tasks, boring lab chores and scheduled time to read the article I printed 2 weeks ago (the one marked NB!!!!). Writing the to-do lists makes me feel organised and doing the to-do lists makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something (no task is menial – see lesson #1).

Lab life lesson #4: Not all PhDs are created equal
Heading into Year Five of the PhD (2 years behind schedule according to ‘official’ timeframes), it is easy to get discouraged. Especially when students who started their research after you are graduating before you. Thursdays, 13:00 is our departmental research forum slot. This platform gives post-graduate students the (compulsory) opportunity to present their research progress. Thursdays, 13:00 is a daunting time for me: the progress of others reminds me of the lack of my own.  I sit there, stewing in a long list of excuses to make myself feel better.

I’m a biochemist doing a microbiology project and I didn’t even take Micro subjects during my undergrad!

The focus of my research changed at least three times in the first two years (so technically I’m only in Year 3…).

I waited three months for quarts tubes from Germany to grow my bacterial biofilms in.

Then I had to learn how to grow bacterial biofilms.

The microscope broke.

Sometimes the bacteria just. don’t. want. to. grow.

The microscope broke again.

And really, my PhD is so much harder than the presenter’s PhD because… (insert another long list).

During last week’s forum, I remembered something A.A. Milne said:

Loots 2

Stewing doesn’t make me feel better and doesn’t make me progress any faster. Yes, novelty is easier to find in some research projects. Sometimes experiments work first time round. Sometimes orders are delivered on time. But each thesis comes with its own hardships and sacrifices. It is difficult not to let the success of others make you feel unaccomplished. It’s even harder to accept responsibility for your research and not blame your lack of progress on the research field, delivery delays or your supervisor’s involvement. My mandate now is to celebrate everyone’s research success as if it were my own in the hope that it motivates me to make it my own.

Goodness. I have learned a lot…and I don’t think I’m anywhere near done! There are lessons on time management, scientific methods and thesis editing (something I call “killing your darlings”) to come. But for now, I’m going to go label my test tubes.