Scientists are People, Too

Scientists are People, Too

By Mary Madera
UC Berkeley Laboratory Assistant and CLEAR member since 2015

I spend 30 hours a week in a white lab coat and 20 in sweats. I research plant DNA and love chocolate stouts. I run PCRs and half marathons. I am a scientist. I am a person.

But when NPR’s science correspondents Joe Palca and Maddie Sofia came to speak to the CLEAR group about science communication in an era of “Fake News”, nothing resonated with me more than this reminder, “Don’t forget, scientists are people. They – you folks – are part of the public”.

It seemed absurd that I would be shaken by such an obvious reminder; of course I am a person and part of the public. I vote, I interact with people in public stores and spaces, and I am defined by much more than just my chosen profession in science.

A single conversation with one of my lab mates could easily contain all of these real acronyms. Any outsider would likely be lost within the first few sentences since using these has become second nature to us.

“…I’d created a [scientific] language barrier in my own mind…The scientist in me felt separated from the public.”

But the deeper I delved into the world of science, the more I realized that the language of science was influencing the way I thought and spoke about scientific facts, ideas and controversies. I’d created a language barrier in my own mind, and was steadily losing the ability to translate across it whenever I spoke about science to friends or strangers who didn’t speak it, too. The scientist in me felt separated from the public.

I have worked very hard to become part of the science community. As an undergraduate, I viewed my education as a type of tasting menu, not for subjects, but for doors into the “scientific community”. As I progressed, my enthusiasm increased and I was happy to discover that “science” is not some exclusive, members-only club, but a true community where members in every field contribute and connect with each other through research and the common drive and love for scientific discovery.

A picture, taken by my mother, of the Bay Area science community waiting to begin the satellite March for Science that took place in San Francisco on April 22, 2017.

“…’science’ is not some exclusive, members-only club, but a true community…”

As I was finding my place in this community and beginning my science outreach efforts, I realized that of the roughly 30 researchers on the floor of my building, I only knew what 5 of them were studying. Why? Hint: Busy schedules, tough experiments and introverted personalities are not the only suspects.

For many of us, it is easy to work diligently with our heads down, so focused on our own project that it becomes hard to reach out to associates who specialize in something different. In a way, science on a professional scale seems to lead to a sort of tunnel vision where some of us become so driven for the knowledge at the end of our tunnels that we miss opportunities awaiting us outside of our projects, like friendly neighbors.

Moral of the story: it is difficult to talk about what we do, even to other scientists.

Detailed scientific research is by its very nature filled with jargon and acronyms that can be confusing, even to other scientists. Yet we are not taught, nor seldom make time to practice, the art of translating our work into dinner table language.

While some of us may be passionate and eager to share our work, we may be too nervous to do so, fearing that if an attempted explanation comes out unclear or filled with unintentional jargon, we’ll be regarded as haughty, self-absorbed scholars in an “ivory tower”. Other times – and perhaps more often – we may deem the job of translating, condensing, and simplifying our life’s work into a few brief, jargon-free sentences to be simply not worth the effort. In much the same way that people tend to answer “How are you doing?” with a generic one-word response rather than a synopsis of their current life situation, we’ll say something simple which says nothing at all. No matter the reason, however, the result is the same: we avoid public science communication and prefer to converse only with people who already understand our acronyms and experiments.

The inability, or unwillingness, to translate for general communication purposes – and view ourselves as accepted members of the public – has made science mysterious and has contributed to a growing fear and absence of discourse about scientific research and its contributed facts.

But scientists cannot expect the public – whom we wrongly view ourselves as separated from – to support our research, defend scientific facts and promote science education if we cannot explain what we do in everyday language.

We also cannot depend upon science journalists to communicate for us. Time and again, our group members have asked journalists, like Joe Palca, if they think it is their job to make our complex research accessible. Time and again, they have replied, “No.” Reporters may do so for their readers in specific, exciting stories they have decided to cover, but the burden of making science as a whole understandable for everyone is not theirs to bear. It is our responsibility to advocate for our own research.

“Research Taboo” – Our spin-off outreach activity where people tell us their elevator pitches but must omit jargon, acronyms, scientific names and words with 5 or more syllables.

“…who is responsible – and perhaps best-suited – for making a simplified version [of our research] the most accurate? We are, not the reporters.”

Think of it this way: we know our research best. So if we are to cut out the nitty-gritty details, the complex “if…then…” statements and the caveats like “this protein works in this condition but not this one”, who is responsible – and perhaps best-suited – for making a simplified version the most accurate? We are, not the reporters.

So if you’re a scientist, try and talk about your work, or just science in general, with people outside of your lab. Make it an active conversation, not a presentation. Allow them to ask questions and engage at their own level of understanding. Practice your own science communication while simultaneously sharing what you’ve learned as a scientist so far.

If you’re not a scientist, engage in a conversation with a scientist. Don’t be afraid to ask “simple” questions; make us rephrase our methods and throw out our acronyms. If you can’t find a scientist, follow a science-related page on social media and talk about it with your friends.

The goal is to promote widespread science conversation at all levels.

I’ll start right now: I study drought tolerance in a plant called sorghum, which is a gluten-free grain you can eat, and I also study potassium uptake in a tiny plant called Arabidopsis, and I would love to chat about it. In fact, you may have seen me, and my fellow friendly scientist CLEAR members, at the Downtown Berkeley Farmer’s Market once a month, the Oakland Zoo, the March for Science, and soon, some local bars, doing just that – chatting about science.

Me and fellow CLEAR member Thai Dao (left) at our booth at the SF March for Science Fair. Over 100 people participated in our activity expressing why they loved science. See our Facebook page for their responses.
CLEAR members Tim Jeffers (left) and Tuesday Simmons (right) at our table at the Downtown Berkeley Farmer’s Market in March.

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