How I Learned to Stop Lying About My Job

It’s an inevitable question at family gatherings, parties --or perhaps worst of all, at a bar.

“What do you do?”

I pause as I try to craft a response that will neither bore nor insult the person asking. Sometimes, especially at the bar, I try on the first sexy career that comes to mind: I'm assistant White House press secretary. I'm a park ranger at Yellowstone. I organize a little music festival called Lollapalooza.

“I'm a graduate student in neurobiology.”

This either ends the topic in favor of lighter subjects or elicits the dreaded:

“So what exactly do you do?”

I’m not sure why I have such a tough time with this question. I study synaptic development and transmission in C. elegans. I specialize in high-pressure freeze electron microscopy, which allows me to gather high-resolution structural data from various genetic mutant strains.

Maybe it’s the glazed look I get as soon as I say “synaptic.” Of course, I don’t expect non-scientists to be familiar with terms like synaptic or C. elegans. I know as little about positioning statements in marketing as my sister knows about electron microscopy. Even within one's own department, jargon varies and can be misunderstood.

It's frustrating talking about science with people who aren't scientists. Their reaction to my job description is often awe and polite disinterest. Wow, that is so cool! You are way smarter than me, and I probably won’t understand what you’re talking about, so let’s just not go there. It begs the question, what do people in America really think about science?

It turns out that most adults think that “science has made life easier for most people.” They think science has benefited this country and our government’s investment in science has been worth it. And America loves science! Pop-culture icons like Bill Nye the Science Guy and "The Big Bang Theory" are entertaining bridges into scientific topics for which people have a natural curiosity.

Still, there's a disconnect between the scientific community and the general public. Scientific literacy in the United States is a mixed bag. While 88% of AAAS scientists think GMO’s are safe to eat, only 37% of the public agrees. The proportion of scientists who think climate change is mostly due to humans or who accept the theory of evolution is well over 80%, but only about half of the public agrees with them on these topics.

These numbers reflect that “let’s not go there” attitude towards science. The non-scientific public respects science and thinks it's important; they think I'm a genius for working at it; but something's missing. As scientists, it's our responsibility to bridge that gap.

I’ve been playing with this problem for months now. I practice different ways of talking about my research to family, attend workshops focused on these skills, and read everything I can about science communication. Here are some tips for scientists that I’ve picked up along the way:

Eliminate jargon. At first you'll feel like you are dumbing things down and possibly insulting your audience. But it actually has the opposite effect. People love to feel like they’re smarter than you, so go for it.

Tell a story. Say why it’s important, the background, the problem, and what you’re trying to answer. This applies to scientific writing and presentations, too. The human brain loves a good story.

Use metaphors. Metaphors provide imagery and an intuitive grasp, which go a long way in making your audience comfortable with technical subject matter.

Practice! A friend told me you should prepare three talks for your science -- one for scientists within your field, one for scientists outside your field, and one for the public. Test your elevator pitch on family and friends. Participate in outreach events like Pint of Science. Attend programs like ComSciCon Chicago. Check out the events posted in this newsletter. Once you start looking, you’ll see that the scientific community is working hard to rebrand.

It gets easier, and it feels so good when you get it right. Practicing your science-communication skills will help you talk about your science with everyone, including your future employer or source of funding -- or that attractive stranger at the bar.