Of public transit and science communication

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.

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6 Responses to Of public transit and science communication

  1. tideliar says:

    Great post Belle and something we should all be cognizant of. I spend a great deal of time translating between clinicians and computer scientists…

  2. Namnezia says:

    “Many potentially great presentations and papers have precisely this problem. There is simply too much detail. ”

    This brings an interesting point. I think that the level of detail on a paper is far more than what should be presented in a talk. While I see nothing wrong with too much detail in a paper (the more the merrier), many of these details detract from the linear story presented in a talk. Reading a research paper for me is very non-linear, and one jumps from the main story to the methods, references, to the figures to your handwritten notes on the margins, etc. In this case the details enhance the reading and presentation process.

    The worst talks are ones where the figures are reproduced exactly as they are from paper to slide, while the worst papers are one where all the information is hiddent in fucking supplementary figures.

    • biochembelle says:

      I agree with what you say, Namnezia, but I think some papers can get too technical in intro and/or discussion and lose the thread of their story.

      I have mixed feelings about supplementals. Generally I dislike them, but when reviewers/editors want to see all the controls or similar results, it can bog the paper down. I say this after becoming one of those people who has a paper with more supplemental figures than actual figures–because a reviewer wanted to see the data but it would have been repetitive to put in the main paper.

      • Dr. O says:

        Agreed with Belle here. While I read lots of papers in my own field the way you suggest, I generally like to read a story if the subject is distinct from my own work. In these cases, lots of data that doesn’t contribute to the overall theme annoys me.

        I’ll add this kind of data in the supplemental to appease a reviewer, but I usually try to make sure I find a way to work the material into the text in a way that enhances the story somehow.

  3. Worm Pilot says:

    Great post! I think it comes down to this:
    “For some, it’s as simple as not having learned the importance of telling a story.”

    I think this is a problem for many people. My grad advisor was a fantastic speaker and spent a lot of time and effort teaching us how to give a presentation. I’d say her two biggest suggestions were:
    1) Know your audience. This is why people run into the problem of being too technical. For example, you know way more detail about biochem stuff than your immunologist collaborator wants or maybe even needs to know! And,
    2) Tell a story! It’s ok to give away the punchline in the beginning ‘today I’m going to tell you how we found A by looking at B and C.’ It sooo helps people, particularly if they’re not familiar with the material focus on the important points and get the big picture, which is ultimately what you should be going for. People who want the nitty gritty detail can ask you later or read your paper.

    I get so frustrated going to so many poorly executed science presentations. All the work is cool if you know how to explain it well!!!

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