‘Tis the Season to Talk Science

And just like that another holiday season is upon us. It’s that time of year when scientists across the nation sit down for their family holiday dinner and attempt to answer the following question without triggering blank stares around the dining room table: “So dear, tell me again, what is it that you do in your laboratory?”

KDubbin bench800x800

Karen Dubbin, a Stanford PhD candidate in the CIRM-funded lab of Sarah Heilshorn, is happy about the valuable new skills she gained in a recent Public Communications of Research course

For some researchers, like those launching clinical trials for incurable diseases, their answers are as easy to digest as grandma’s mashed potatoes. But for others who work on less tangible but equally important areas of science, like chemistry, getting through to the family can be challenging—not just family but the public in general. And that’s a problem. Karen Dubbin, a Stanford University Ph.D. candidate studying materials science and engineering (fields that utilize chemistry) recognizes the importance of communicating her work to the public:

“I think that it is important to communicate research in a way the public can understand primarily because the public funds most of the research I participate in, and in order to spread the awareness of need for scientific funding (and hopefully increase said funding in the future) one has to be able to explain it in a way that excites the average person. “

Dubbin just completed a new, mini-course offered to Stanford graduate students in the departments of chemistry, chemical engineering, and chemical biology to help them work on communicating their research with the public. The class came about through a conversation between chemistry professor Chaitan Khosla and my former CIRM colleague Amy Adams who is now director of Interdisciplinary Life Sciences Communications at Stanford. During their conversation, they mulled over why chemists have a steeper hill to climb when communicating their work. Adams said they reached this conclusion:

“Biology always has the hook of being about you, and physics has an “oh wow” factor. Chemistry is somehow always a bit more removed from human problems and also less wow-ish. That said, it’s important to just about everything we do – the keyboard I’m typing on, parts of my clothes, my health.”

And so the Public Communications of Research course was born. Adams brought in science communicators from across the Stanford campus to talk about writing, video and social media, and to help the students think through how they would communicate their own science. As part of a final assignment, Dubbin produced the video below, which summarizes her work in the CIRM-funded lab of Sarah Heilshorn. Her video uses fun graphics and succinct text to explain how the design of new biomaterials is critical for the efficient delivery of future stem cell-based treatments to patients.

Dubbin thought the course was “super helpful” and she gained an important insight about science communication:

“I think when I used to try to explain my research to non-scientists, being totally accurate was the most important thing to me. Now I think it’s more important to make sure the main ideas are extra clear, as you can always go back and answer questions on the more intricate details if the listener is interested.”

Now that her parents and extended family all have copies of the video, Dubbin can look forward to bright eyes instead of blank stares as she touches upon those more intricate details at this year’s holiday dinner.

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2 thoughts on “‘Tis the Season to Talk Science

  1. As a teacher, the best advice I ever heard was this:
    A student will only understand what relates to his/her personal experience. So, for instance, if I was explaining the difference between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells, I might say that the difference was like the difference between cash money which can be spent anywhere (embryonic) and gift certificates which can only be spent in certain stores (adult).

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