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  • Writer's pictureHolly M. Fruehwald

How to tell your grandma what you do (and other communication skills)

You're at a family dinner and your entire family is there, catching up after not having seen each other in a while. You make small talk, when suddenly, you get asked the dreaded question, "how is school going?" How do you begin to explain graduate school to your family, let alone the challenges and successes you face in research? How do you explain this in non-expert terms so they understand what is really going on with you? If you're like me, maybe you just respond with "good" and just try to move on.

My family knows I'm a scientist and every time I see my extended family, they assume I know ALL the science, even though I've explained that my research focuses on materials science (i.e. the science of the development and characterization of materials for applications). They always ask me to answer their questions ranging from genetically modified organisms, the Big Bang, to medical questions that they might have seen their friends share on Facebook. I try my best to answer their questions to the best of my knowledge but I can't help wonder where they got this information from. Even though I have explained multiple times to my family that I am doing a PhD in materials science, I always overhear my Grandma telling her friends that I am going to school to become a medical doctor. Perhaps I have not done a good job explaining exactly what I do, but I can't help wonder if it is my family unwilling to understand the structure of graduate school and research. I can't blame them, I am the only member of my family who has pursued and sort of post-secondary education. My family just may not be as opened to learning new things or share my same interest in science. This is why I have become so interested into learning how to communicate my research in a way that would make them interested, not only for myself, but to make sure they know the science and think twice before believing everything they read on Facebook.

As scientists (or anyone in graduate school) it can be hard for us to communicate our work and knowledge in non-expert terms. Most of us have trained in our undergraduate and graduate degrees to communicate our research to other groups of scientists, such as during conferences, networking, and even in our writing. I do not think that is a bad thing, it is important that we are able to talk and write scientifically and discuss things with our peers. But we are so immersed in this environment that requires us to use "complex" words and ideas when discussion work with colleagues that we essentially have to re-learn how to communicate well without scientific jargon. Our inexperience describing our work to folks who might not come from the same background as us makes it difficult to communicate our research effectively to friends, family, and our community.

Social media is changing science communication. It has opened up new opportunities and has really helped in letting scientists communicate their research publicly. But often times the people we are reaching and our followers are scientists from similar backgrounds to our own. This leads down the same path of only learning to communicate with our colleagues. I am guilty of this as well, I fall into the trap of interacting with folks who also study similar things as me. Even sometimes the tone of my tweets are catered towards people who also study the same things I do.

Why we need Science Communication:

I think this becomes one of our most important jobs as scientists is to be able to communicate science to the people in the community, to give the public all the facts and allow them to make informed decisions. This is our responsibility now more than ever, especially after seeing posts that my family and friends share about medical advice (and all science) that is just so fundamentally wrong. Bad science gets spread so fast because we aren't doing our jobs and communicating the right information well. We are perceived as the scientists that always say "This new study shows" rather than informing true and the latest information that is backed by facts and evidence. The spread of false information could be avoided if scientists could communicate science better to the community, to provide knowledge so that Folks can make informed decisions.

What can we do better?

Find Mentors: We can follow people (like ASAPScience), who communicates complex topics in amazing ways. We can learn from folks like that.

Practice: Find different ways to practice communicating to a non-expert audience. For example, I recently had experience by signing up to participate in my schools Three Minute Thesis competition. I had to learn how to talk about my PhD thesis on electrochemical systems to a room full of bankers, which was quite possibly the most terrifying thing I have done, but it gave me the tools I needed to communicate my research to a non-expert audience.

Learn: Look out for conferences or workshops like ComSciConCAN, aimed at strengthening graduate students' science communication skills. Participating in these learning experiences are so incredibly important for all scientists to attend and help fight bad science.

Try something new: Try to explain your research and ask for feedback. Science is so much more than writing papers and giving presentations. It is also about how we can use something as simple as Twitter or a blog to communicate our research in effective and informative ways. We desperately need conferences and learning opportunities simialr to one to educate us on how to communicate and involve our communities in science education. I am personally very excited to implement everything from this conference into my blog and Twitter practices so I can carry on communicating my research successfully and accessibly.

Hopefully at my next family gathering I will be able to talk about my research and keep my family interested in what I do. Finally, my Grandma can start telling everyone I'm a research scientist, not a medical doctor.

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