Sophie is a second year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh and she has been shortlisted for the Max Perutz writing prize. Here, she give her tips for communicating your science effectively.
I’ve heard it said that if you can’t explain your research so that your grandmother can understand it, then you can’t explain your research. In my case it’s not exactly a fair measure, as my 97-year-old Nana occasionally calls me up and asks me questions like ‘Can you tell me about Stephen Hawking? He sounds very interesting.’ and ‘What is the genome?’ but perhaps that’s partly where I’ve practised my science communication skills.
I was recently shortlisted for the Max Perutz writing prize, an annual competition ran by the MRC with the title ‘Why does my research matter?’, and it got me thinking about the importance of communicating your science. Obviously as scientists we’re used to talking about our work with peers, presenting to other labs and discussing technicalities (although I still struggle with this!). Being able to explain the exact same things to a non-scientist in a simple but not patronising way is a whole different experience.
While you don’t enter a competition without a modicum of hope that you might win, I don’t think I was really expecting to make it through, and I don’t feel in any position to start telling people how to communicate science. It’s so worth doing though, and not just for prizes or your CV. The ability to distil your busy, scattered, day-to-day science into a compact little package to be doled out at the first mention of ‘What exactly is it that you do?’ is fairly handy and even helps you to re-focus your research.
I started my PhD in September with the Wellcome Trust Tissue Repair programme at University of Edinburgh, where I did two rotations before starting my main project a few months ago. I’m focusing on cerebral small vessel disease, which causes a deterioration of the smallest arteries in the brain. Though maybe it’s not one you’ve heard of, it’s the most common cause of vascular dementia and triples your risk of stroke. I’m interested in the cells that make up the walls of these arteries as it looks like they might have intrinsic problems that are the starting point for the cascade of symptoms that we see in the disease.
The very fact that cerebral small vessel disease is so under-recognised really motivates me to communicate my science. For the writing competition I used a pretty crazy analogy of the brain as a greenhouse, the cells as plants inside and the arteries as the irrigation system farmers would use to water their crop. Finding something people can visualise always helps, even if it’s a little unusual.
People might say they can’t do it but there are so many forms of communicating your science these days. Everything from social media to visits in schools, from podcasts to ‘Dance your PhD’ (yes it’s a thing, check it out) so I reckon everyone can find something that suits them. I like writing but I am terrible at Twitter – I guess I just have too many words in my head that I can’t condense into 140 characters. Someone recently described my writing as ‘bipolar…but in a good way’. She elaborated that I write hardcore science with fluffy analogies, which I guess is true and it works for a blog, an article, or indeed an MRC writing competition. However, engaging a classroom of children in a scientific topic is a form of communication that truly terrifies me. If one’s not for you, I suspect another one will be so try all the flavours of communication to figure out what you like.
Practising your patter in any form will certainly be useful when you are down the pub or at the next family event trying to articulate what you actually did this week, but you’ll be surprised at how it’ll also be useful at conferences and when speaking to other labs in passing. So next time your grandma asks how you’re doing, why not go beyond telling her what you had for tea and try explaining the basis of your thesis instead?