Ok, I realise that some of you work on a genome campus or your mum may be a Nobel prize winner, but, given a socially average situation, how do you explain your work, and for a 50 point bonus, how do you feel as you do it?
I totally think that science communication should be a required course in every PhD program, and that you should have to practice these explanations until you can do them in your sleep. Scientists are their own best advocates, and we need to start acting like it.
You need to be able to explain your work at several different depths. It's just as important to accurately gauge the interest and experience of your audience, so you can choose the appropriate spiel. That's the really tricky part. Some of the tools you need are:
The layperson's 15-second elevator pitch: For the cocktail party or the new acquaintance who asks what you do. They should walk away understanding that you do science and that your work is trying to make the world a better place. ("better cancer treatments", "new malaria drugs")
The follow-up 2-minute overview if they ask for more details Still very high level, abstract, focused on where you're trying to get with your research. ("understanding XYZ part of disease ABC by looking at things through a microscope", "figuring out how the brain stores memories by sticking people in cool scanners")
The full explanation. For the non-scientists who really want to wrap their head around what you do. Keep in mind that these people may not have taken a science course since high school. Avoid jargon and acronyms, and make sure that at the end, you leave them with the big picture idea of what you're trying to accomplish and how that will advance humanity.
The scientists's elevator pitch. For people who you'll meet around your campus or at conferences. You may even need two or three of these, for use in different venues. (At a focused conference, you'll be more specific and jargon-ythan at a departmental retreat)
The two-minute casual conversation. This one is tricky, because you need to read the person you're talking to in a very short time. Do they know what RMA is? What about ERBB2? What's their background, and how can I look at my problem from their angle, so as to best couch my answer in terms they'll understand?
The 5, 15, and 30 minute presentations, often with slides or a poster. You should get drilled in these during your graduate school career, and if you didn't, there's no time like the present to start practicing.
Once you get these down, practice the final element, which is being enthusiastic about your work. After all, you probably think that what you’re researching is one of the coolest and most important things ever. If that comes across to your audience, they’ll be engaged and interested too.
My person-on-the-street explanation would include where I work, the term Bioinformatics, and something like "I use computers to analyze biological data so we can better understand how life works". I tend to emphasize that I like my job, I find it interesting, and that the complexity of life continues to amaze me.
As I'm explaining, I feel, nervous, proud, and afraid they won't understand.
I am also slightly afraid they might think I am evil and enjoy killing cuddly animals and/or babies.
I use these simple facts : I work on data from human genome project, and explain that its one of the biggest scientific achievement ever. I use that data to analyze proteins involved in X diseases. We are trying to understand these proteins and its various aspects related to disease using computer programs, database, software etc. I will clarify that I won't do any wet lab experiments, instead I use computers for the experiments and we call it as dry lab. This used to work for me most of the time.
I go to the streets and stop all the people I encounter, and I explain them what I do in my lab, so I accumulate a lot of experience and become better at explaining things :-)
Seriously, if you want to be able to explain your project to other people, you have to be able to explain it to your workmates first.. so I prepare a seminar every once in a while and I try to be active at group meetings. In my first year of phd I was able to prepare a seminar every month (as a mean), I also went to python meetings etc..
Non peer-review journals like The Scientist or Scientific American can give you good examples on how to translate a complex scientific experiment in a language that is easy to understand for everybody.
Another way to improve comes from the fact that I use a lot of A7 papers to take notes, so I constantly have to reduce my tasks to short phrases. However, it would take too long to explain this system better here..
I think that in general, if you want to improve your communications skills, you have to practice a lot, there is no other way to do it.
"It's like someone put 50,000 copies of Pride and Prejudice into a shredder, and I'm supposed to find the typos by comparing all the pieces to the "right" version. The typos tell us how someone's latest antibiotic works."
I do Genetics - I take blood samples from people with rare diseases, then find all the variations they have which make them unique. You know how everyone's DNA is slightly different right - like there's probably over 10,000 differences in the DNA between you, me, and that girl over there.. well my job is to find the one difference that the people who have these rare diseases have that other people don't have - and with 10,000 tiny differences there's a lot of guess work involved! Fortunately, with computers, I can put the most important differences to the top of my list to investigate first. I seem to spend all my time on computers these days....
If i've been at the party a while and i've had one too many drinks, i say:
"I'm a Bioinformaticist - well technically I have an MRes in Human Genetics so i'm a Human Geneticist. But I do a lot of coding, like Python and C++ and quite a lot of database work too. Like just this weekend I made a program to automate primer design! Hah! So lazy.
OMGare those copper deposits in your eyes? Do you have Wilson's Disease?! How's your liver? Can I have some blood? What blood type are you? Are your parents still alive? How many siblings do you have? Have you ever considered exome sequencing?"
If any of those final questions are answered I ask for a phone number because i've just met my wife.
I usually start telling that biologist currently measure more things than they can possibly understand by just looking at the results of the measurements; that they can for instance measure what 20.000 genes do. Then I explain that there are just 20.000 words in the average dictionary. So there is no way you will understand 20.000 lines of data by just looking at them.
Then they usually already volunteer "so you use computers..", and I say: "actually yes, but that is not the core thing". And I explain that complex mathematical treatments do yield nice pictures but you still don't understand the pictures. And I might show them a "colored balls in the sky" (=PCA) plot or a heatmap. And I ask them whether they would understand that better. Of course they look doubtful. So I tell them "neither do we".
And I tell them we only start to understand when we combine that mathematically treated data with what we already know. That that is why we create biological diagrams or assist the biologists to make those (that is indeed what WikiPathways is for), and how we can show measurements on those pathways.
Sometimes if I succeed really well I hear "Oh, so it is actually just like coloring a cartoon".
So yes: we try to make biology out of big heaps of data by combining that with what we already know.
And when they ask me what that is called. I say "if you fancy computers it is bioinformatics, if you fancy living beings it is integrative systems biology".
Well I always tell them that we help biologists to understand their data.
Its like biologists gives us a bowl full of alphabets.
We take that bowl, generate words and meaning full sentences ... arrange them in paragraphs ... make chapter and finally a book. We return that book to biologists who will then interpret it and make sense out of it.