I haven’t owned a car for almost 6 months, so I’m now completely dependent on public transportation. It’s a weird thing, coming from a place where most areas are so spread out and public transportation so barebones that it’s nigh impossible to get around without a car. Boston’s public transit is more than barebones, yet people who have lived in the city for years complain anytime the subject comes up.
There are certainly reasons to complain. There are no direct routes between certain points, so it can take you more than 3 times as long to get there as it should. There are the constant signal problems and disabled trains. Of course, this all once you’re on the train. Out my way, it’s not uncommon for a train to roll right past a platform without stopping, leaving behind many confused, frustrated, annoyed, and/or angry people.
A scientist explaining science can have quite similar effects.
My alter ego recently played the role of such an offender. I was given the chance to write a research highlight for a journal. Basically I needed to summarize a paper in 500 words or less at a level for a science grad student or undergrad. As it so happens, I’m married to an undergrad majoring in science, and after finishing my draft, I asked him to read it and give me his impression. He thought the intro paragraph was good, but then he got lost in the middle because it was so technical.
Many potentially great presentations and papers have precisely this problem. There is simply too much detail. The reasons for this vary. For some, it’s as simple as not having learned the importance of telling a story. Some may simply be excited about their results and fail to temper it. Others, I think, are trying to prove their effort, their intelligence, their worth. Some perhaps want to overwhelm or intimidate the audience with their grandeur. For me, it’s usually a mixture of the desire to share knowledge and the way I process information.
When I hit a writing block or lose my train of thought in a conversation, I sometimes resort to a brain dump. I just start listing facts, sometimes with little regard to pertinence. I have to take a break, look at it anew, and often just start over because I’m lacking the critical thread. I go back with a fresh view and focus on the point I want to get a cross. Anyone can dryly list facts on a page or go through every mundane experimental detail in a presentation. It’s actually quite easy—but no one gets much out of it.
As scientists, we need to pay attention to detail, but we also have to learn how to translate detail into discussion. This has always been important. It is increasingly critical as the boundaries between fields continue to blur, and we engage in more inter-/multi-disciplinary science. I am a biochemist working in a lab with a pharmacologist and an immunologist. I work in a department that is mostly cell biologists and physiologists. I am entering into collaborations with computational biophysicists. Who knows what other sorts of people might cross my path in the future? I do know that, if I am to have a successful and exciting scientific career, I have to continue learning and refining my approach to science communication.