Tuesday, December 24, 2013

What I Do and Why I Do It: a son's gift of his research to his mother.

Every time she calls, my mother reminds me that basic scientists have a public relations problem. Not explicitly, of course, but typically our conversations have the same general progression:

Mom: Hi honey!
Me: Hi mom.
Mom: Thanks for finally picking up your phone!
Me: No problem.
Mom: So, how are things going in lab?
Me: [pause] Um, they're good! Very good. [pause] How are things at home?
Mom: Well, let's see…

and then we talk about her life for 15 minutes. I imagine that many scientists react the way I do when asked about our work. We think about it for a few seconds, decide that an honest answer would take too long, say something noncommittal, and change the subject. This isn't necessarily a problem in elevators or at cocktail parties - who want's to talk about a rando's professional life, anyway? What's worse is that I find it hard to talk about my work with nonscientists who might actually be interested, primarily because they're interested in me and what I care about in this world. People like close friends, significant others, and yes, my mom. 

This problem is especially acute for basic scientists, mostly because we suffer from the additional worry that if we explain our individual projects, we'll be met with blank stares and the obvious followup, "so how does that affect...me?" I imagine that my classmates who study cancer don't have this issue:

Rando: So, what do you do?
Classmate: Oh, I'm in graduate school studying cancer.
Rando: OMG you're curing cancer? Can I buy you a drink?

It's not that I don't think that my work is important; obviously the opposite is true or I wouldn't be putting in the hours for the stipend I earn. It's just that the time and effort that it takes to explain an entire project and it's impact to someone (nonscientists, non-biologists, or even biologists outside of my field) seems overwhelming in the immediate sense. This is a problem, especially since basic science is under attack in this country. I'd like to believe things have improved since 2008 when Sarah Palin publicly denounced government-funded fruit fly research, but with sequester budgets in place and big science initiatives like ENCODE in the public eye, I imagine that it's only going to get harder for basic scientists to convince the powers that be to give them funding without predictable implications for human welfare. 

Part of the problem is that the public fails to appreciate that it takes some time to see the impact of basic science on human health. Who could have predicted that the sec genes in yeast would one day be used to produce a third of the world's insulin, or that the bacterial repeats discovered in 1987 would be used for precise genome editing in a genomic age? Part of the solution, therefore, would be increasing the scientific literacy of the general public (so easy! why hasn't anyone thought of that? har har har). 

But we, as basic scientists, are complicit in that most of us are very bad at advocating for our research to anyone outside of our field, especially the general public. There are a handful of successful scientific blogs and programs (I'm sure opinions on Radiolab are variable, but mine are favorable), but most of us don't try to engage the public in our work. One reason may be that we're constantly bombarded by writing that blows scientific achievement out of proportion and we don't want our own work to suffer from the same problem. But really, I expect the main obstacle is the fact that writing about our own work for a general audience is DAMN. HARD. as I found out below. Yet, how can we expect the public to advocate for us if our work remains inaccessible to them? We need some basic science allies with some influence in the public sphere, and the only way we're going to get them is if we talk about our work to the people who love us in a way they can understand. 

So this Christmas, I decided to start with my mom.

I've tried to explain my research to her before. We have a conversation, I draw some things on a napkin, she puts some notes in her iPhone, and promptly forgets everything. This is my fault, not hers; how can I expect someone to retain the important details of a fragmented story told (a little buzzed) on napkins at Christmas? This time, I needed to make something physical, substantial, and comprehensive. So I went to the drugstore, bought a binder, some Crayola markers and plastic sheet protectors, planned and wrote for hours, and finally produced the following:

I tried to make sure my gift had the following attributes:

1) Succinct: I started 3 days out from Christmas, so I didn't have all the time in the world. It ended up being 10 pages, and I spent at least that many hours on it.

2) Complete: I wanted to include all of my research, not just the parts that were easiest to explain. I ended up telling her about three projects, but I did leave out two others. I would like to say that I did this because I don't have the data to back them up yet, but really I just got tired. So much for completeness.

3) Free of jargon: This was hard. I tried to make sure I defined any term that my mom wouldn't know. She's a college graduate, taught elementary school for 34 years, and does crossword puzzles, so she knows a lot about the world. That being said, she knows DNA is the genetic material and proteins are in things you eat. Scientists might note that I didn't mention RNA at all, even though I work on gene expression. I didn't use the word 'expression' even though I work on gene expression. Jargon keeps us at a distance from anyone outside of our field, and only through this project did I truly realize how much I've internalized and use on a daily basis.

4) Honest: Also surprisingly hard. There are at least two reasons why scientists lie to non-scientists. One is to make their explanations simpler by pretending like the world is simpler than it is; the other is to make their own research seem more important by understating the accomplishments of other scientists. I tried not to do either, although human geneticists who look at my page on human genetic variation might think otherwise. I also omitted a couple controls on page 8, because the effect that they control for is difficult to explain. So yeah, not perfect on this front either.

5) Relatable: My goal isn't just for my mom to understand what I do and why, but for her to be able to explain both to anyone who asks (basic science ally!). Whether or not I succeeded will only become clear during phone conversations after Christmas.

You can see my efforts in the pages that follow with some random thoughts. I'm terrible at drawing (which is a bummer, because my boss is pretty great at it), so my cartoons had to be simple, informative, and color-coded.I kept one page out because it describes a collaboration with a labmate who is publishing soon, and I don't want to ruin the surprise. Overall, this project was a hard one and it came out imperfectly in many ways, but I think I accomplished what I wanted - when my mom calls, I might actually be able to describe what I did that day, and she'll understand why I did it and what it means. If this post has made it to your eyes and you have the time, I'd love to hear your comments or critiques about how I did, how we (as academics) could do better engaging those outside our field, or about my projects in particular (especially if you're a nonscientist). 

As an organizing strategy, I tried to end each page with a question, which I answer on the next page. Unfortunately, I started from this developmental angle and then never got around to a proper treatment of the problem. I would redo this page so it makes more sense in the context of the others, but...no. It's also unfortunate that the first cartoon fly I drew ended up being the cutest.

It hurts me that I ignored my favorite part of the central dogma, but talking about RNA would have added at least an extra page. In other news, look at that sweet cartoon ATP synthase and that slanty slanty gene diagram! Yeah, buddy.

For anyone who knows anything about gene expression, I apologize that calling them 'inactivating TFs' as opposed to 'repressors' probably hurts you both physically and spiritually. I also could have come up with a better example for the last diagram. I'm proud of the enhancer swap, even though that fly probably wouldn't develop into a recognizable adult. Plus that human up top looks like he has floaties and a swim cap.

Feel free to yell at me, human geneticists of the world. I tried my best, and I apologize for not portraying your field in a better light.

Nice tea stain above, amirite? Note the failed effort to represent an array at the bottom.

And now we actually get to my projects! Two and a half years of research fit on three hand drawn pages. That's graduate school in a fly lab.

Ooh yeah. Designer enhancers wut wut.

Now I have to write a DAC report. Maybe I'll just send them this post.

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