Don’t leave out the melody of your science

So this afternoon I watched Alan Alda give a talk about scientific communication. He was talking about his Center for Communicating Science workshop taking place over the next couple of days, and about how scientists can sometimes be dreadful at explaining their work.

It was really interesting. He told some stories, made some jokes and genuinely has some useful information. Particularly the importance of actually making a connection with the person you’re talking to. He compared it to the steps of falling in love; attraction, infatuation and commitment. You have to make people fall in love with your work, or science in general, to make them find you interesting.

A major component of falling in love is body language, so it’s important you actually engage your audience. What you actually say is one of the least attractive things. Wait, that’s wrong, I mean no-one cares what you have to say. Wait, no. Basically how you act and how you talk are important, but the content doesn’t matter as much.

For me the most useful part was about taking a step back from your work; losing the hindrance of too much knowledge. Without sounding braggy, this is my main problem. My PhD was about a lipid called phosphatidylinositol (4,5)-bisphosphate. It can abbreviated to PIP2 but still that’s nonsense, especially when there are 3 of them (phosphatidylinositol (3,4)-bisphosphate and phosphatidylinositol (3,5)-bisphosphate if you’re interested). My work now is on myokines and insulin secretion, and there are only so many times I can say this or that tissue “spits out stuff”.

The way Alda explained it was by trying to guess the tune from just a beat, similar to when you hear someone tapping on a table. Without meaning to the tapper (i.e. the scientist) is failing to properly explain. You mean to fill in the noises around the beat. “Don’t leave out the melody of your science.” Which I’m sure is one of my favourite phrases, and I’ll definitely be using it the future;

So, am I really writing a blog about what a nice evening I had? Oh no! I also learnt some apparently awful things about the way American scientists are trained. At the end there were questions from the audience, and a couple really stood out for me.

Some jerk climbed out of his cave, and grumbled something along the lines of “Young scientists are told to abandon their emotions, so how can we talk about science using those ‘romantic’ metaphors?” Which, if you can read, you will understand is a dumb question, unless you are possibly on the autistic spectrum and don’t understand how love for a person, and a topic can be the similar.

Followed by “more men in science, we no like talk ’bout feelings!” I’m paraphrasing obviously, but seriously to say men can’t talk passionately about science, because we don’t like expressing ourselves is terribly, terribly dumb.

Firstly, men obviously love science or there wouldn’t be a overwhelming bias towards males in science, which I’ve touched on a bit before.

Secondly, it’s stupid to suggest that students are told to leave their emotions out of science. Without emotions, there’s no passion; and if I was told that why the hell would I have stayed in the lab all night? Why would I talk about my work with any one who will listen? Why would I force a copy of my thesis on my girlfriend and Grandparents? And why would I move half way across the world away from my friends and family in the hopes that I will get to science for the rest of my life.

Thirdly, it’s kinda sexist to assume men can’t talk about their feelings.

It does explain a little bit about the poor standard of presentations I’ve seen over here though. I’ve been to 4 conferences  on campus since I started, and the majority of the speakers sounded bored and uninterested. I assumed it was just me being a jerk. Back in Manchester all PhD students made at least 3 presentations to senior members of staff, and if you were bad, you practiced and got good pretty soon.

Then, one of the worst people had a good ol’ moan. “It’s really hard to get scientists and students to come to my class and talk about being a scientist.” Cue shocked gasps. Alda, as concerned as anyone queried, “What? Do they not reply? What happens?” And this joke of a biology teacher just whined “I don’t know, I haven’t tried. I’m tooooo buuuuusssyyyy.”

Seriously, what is wrong with people?!

I know science can be explained better, and Alan Alda’s advice was fantastic. But some people are dreadful. Charlotte thinks I’m being a bit of jerk when I tell people I am literally an award-winning public speaker, but I am. I was asked to present my data two days before a conference, and won best talk for babbling on about phosphatidylinositol (4,5)-bisphosphate. I got my postdoc position literally by flying to UCSD, and talking to strangers about my work. I’m hardly a real person, and I seem to have done alright. I’ll definitely be using Alda’s tips though.

Today’s quote is from Alan Alda, believe it or not