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Lining Zhu

 

Science plays a major role in addressing growing challenges in human health, food, and environment. But a lack of communication and trust has led some hostile skeptics to question the validity of scientific fact and scientific approaches to problem-solving.

 

Witnessing misunderstanding and mistrust of science is heartbreaking. Rather than blaming others for spreading the rumors, I asked myself, “What can scientists do better?” One answer is to communicate with the public effectively.

 

Scientists need to be committed to communication, education, and outreach for several reasons. First, the public—the taxpayers who fund scientific research—has the right to know the fruits of that research. Second, research produces scientific innovations that potentially impact people’s everyday lives. Bad communication; not only cripples your message but also turns the public away.

 

How to talk about your work

 

During any conversation, the key is to tailor your message to your listeners’ interest and their level of knowledge in science. Ask them if they have questions from time to time, and let their questions guide the direction of your talk.

 

Take my <>project, for example. I use numbers. The lethal dose of botulinum toxin for humans is about two nanograms per kilogram of bodyweight, according to the World Health Organization website. Once I see my listeners’ shocked faces, I can elaborate further on the significance of my research in designing an ultrasensitive detection assay for botulinum toxin.

 

Another tip is to use creative analogies. After a recent loss in the CRISPR patent fight, Jennifer Doudna described the issue this way: The University of California has “a patent on all tennis balls,” whereas the Broad has “a patent on green tennis balls.” The broadly applicable spectrum of her patent is what the public should care about.

 

You can also give your audience educational or entertaining readings related to your research from mainstream publishers. In my case, a good place for my listeners to start is the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website. They use eye-catching multimedia resources to illustrate the ins-and-outs of botulism, a serious paralytic illness caused by botulinum toxin. Additionally, the recent TIME article Botox: the Drug That’s Treating Everything reported more than 700 medical uses of Botox® (a botulinum toxin product) besides smoothing wrinkles. From these two sources, my audience can clearly see that for patients experiencing botulism or undergoing Botox treatment, ultrasensitive titration is essential for both early diagnosis and treatment success.

 

When and where to share your science

 

There are endless opportunities to share your science: family reunions, on the hiking trail, during a subway ride, at the check out line, or even in the dog park. There are also more structured ways to engage in science communication:

  • Volunteer in science outreach programs. You can find these programs in many universities, institutes, museums, or professional organizations.
  • Reach the public by writing for newspapers and organization newsletters. Alternatively, you can take to social media platforms or create your own blog.
  • Join Toastmasters meetings. This is a great venue where you can share your science while improving your public speaking and many other soft skills.

Being a scientist does not mean immersing yourself in research only. Step out of the lab, and transform your fantastic science into authentic storytelling.

 

Lining Zhu is a postdoctoral fellow at City of Hope Beckman Research Institute in Duarte, CA.

 

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