January 30, 2015

3 Ways Being a Science Communicator has Made Me a Better Scientist

Hold still while I place the electrodes on your head!
My first research presentation in college is forever etched into my memory.

It was the end of our fall semester biology lab, and my group met in the library the week beforehand to prepare our PowerPoint. I was in charge of making slides with background information.

For our project, my lab group had measured polyphenol oxidase—an enzyme involved in the browning of fruit—in three different apple varieties.  As it turns out, every group had done this experiment. It was the coolest thing we’d learned how to do that semester, after all.

So I wanted our group to stand out. I interspersed the boring, informational slides with a little storytelling, and the experiment took on a life of its own:

It’s almost time for the annual county fair, and you want to make the best apple pie! You know that the key to success is using an apple that won’t brown right after you cut it. Which variety will get you the blue ribbon?

My group was a bit skeptical, but they ultimately buckled under my persistence.

We got our grade a week later—an A. But the professor wrote a note underneath: “Good presentation, but a bit gimmicky. Don’t do that next time.”

I was deflated. While my approach, in retrospect, may not have been the best for a class assignment, I knew that what I had done wasn’t inherently bad or wrong—I was telling a story.

Scientists are often told to reach out to general audiences about their research for the public’s benefit. We need to establish trust! Taxpayers deserve to understand where their money is going! We need to clear up misconceptions about GMOs and vaccines and climate change!

While these arguments are absolutely true, many scientists find this hard to do. Science communication can become a time-consuming side job. And for many, such a responsibility to the general public can be extremely daunting.

But it’s okay for scientists to practice their communication skills for non-philanthropic reasons, too. Despite my initial college lab experience, telling stories as a science communicator today has made me a much, much better scientist in a few unexpected ways.