Lab Notes – Dr. Bowdish on Science Outreach

So, you’re a hot-shot researcher. You do great work and publish in Nature on the regular. Unfortunately, you’ve spent so much time becoming an expert that you haven’t worked on the skills to interface with a non-technical audience. Your colleagues know how gifted you are, but the public doesn’t. When the people who pay your bills ask what you’re working on, you give a short, jargon-y explanation, and assume they won’t understand.

Then they cut your funding and you die cold and alone.

Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit.

In July, WISE – a group supporting women in science and engineering – invited Dr. Bowdish to speak in their mentorship lecture series. This series focuses on the often left-out topics that concern graduate students in science. Things like finding your professional voice, how careers in science work, and how to deal with pressures of graduate school and academia. In this lecture, Dr. Bowdish spoke about Science Outreach and interfacing with the public. I was impressed and energized by her lecture, so I figured I’d write about what I took away from the talk.


One can argue that it’s in your best interest to sell your work to the public since they, at the end of the day, have a lot of say on funding of the sciences. But I think a more compelling reason is that they pay for it – maybe they deserve to know what they’re getting?

This isn’t really a new or controversial idea, and I don’t even think it’s that researchers undervalue this aspect of their careers. But the fact remains that researchers are notoriously horrible at presenting their work to the public, and I believe that may be because it’s a part of our career we are never formally trained in. The unfortunate result is a public that doesn’t understand how science works, where their money is going, or why they should be funding it at all. I think this is how there can be so many global warming deniers and anti-vaccination groups out there. Science is seen as this big, mysterious entity whose pockets are lined with taxpayer and big industry dollars, with very little accountability. This is not the reality, but as a group, scientists aren’t really doing a good job of combating this image.

Motivated to become a better presenter yet?! Here’s a crash course based on what I learned.

At least from my experience, science students can be a pretty insecure bunch. I’ve referred to impostor syndrome before on this blog, but it’s basically the feeling that you are not as good or deserving as your peers, and we basically all have it. You may think that you got where you are as a fluke, or some cosmic oversight. Of course this is just your brain being a jerk, but realizing that doesn’t actually help. This is a mentality that you really need to work on to overcome, because not only does it make you feel like crap, but it can actually be the source of a lot of bad habits.

Feeling inferior can drive you to try and sound smart… which makes for a terrible presentation. In your attempt to be precise in your speech, you lose sight of the goal of your talk – to make the audience understand your work. So! Some quick tips.

Cut the jargon

If you go to a very specialized conference, you’d imagine most people know the jargon of the field, but there may be some audience members who are new to the field. For safety, you briefly define your jargon. If you speak to the general public, no one will know your jargon, and no one will remember how you define your jargon. They are already out of their element and pulling brain power away from the message and towards learning new words is not the point of your talk.  Cut it out. “But the point of jargon is to make communication more efficient! How will I ever make all the points I want to?” You won’t.

You put too much information in your talk

If it’s the first draft, I guarantee that you put too much information in your talk. Remember how long it took you to get your results? Don’t try and tell the whole story in a 15 or 20 minutes. You are going to have to cherry pick the big points, and give just enough detail and background for your audience to get some intuition about the results. They don’t necessarily need to know the story of your research chronologically. You get to re-write history in a sense and cut out all the failures! You aren’t trying to teach them to avoid all your pitfalls and reproduce your results.

Tell a story

The term “lecture” and “talk” are often used interchangeably, but I think we can be a bit more precise. I think the goal of a lecture is to convey technical information to others so that they can use or reproduce it. I think of a talk as story time. When you are presenting to the public, you are giving them a talk. You want to tell them a story. Stories are more engaging because when you tell a story, the best part of yourself comes out. Your excitement about your subject and the reason you got into it in the first place becomes the focus. This is what you really want to convey to your audience.

Don’t fake surprise when someone asks a question

Audience: “What did you mean when you said ‘energy is conserved’?”

Emotional Terrorist: “Really? You’ve never heard that whole ‘energy can’t be created or destroyed’ thing?”

Instead, try this:

Reasonable Presenter: “Ah, thank you. Let me step through this in a bit more detail because it’s really quite important.”

It takes guts to ask a question as an audience member. You’re admitting you don’t understand something, and it’s possible (extremely unlikely) you are the only one who doesn’t.  As a presenter, be honored that someone cares enough to go out on a limb for clarification. Don’t make them feel any more uncomfortable than they already are.

Some final thoughts:

Rarely an issue in my field, but sometimes your audience will have strong opinions on your topic before they arrive at your talk. Example: anti-vaccination. Quite contentious. Just remember that typically, people all want the same thing. They want what’s best for the people they love. Try to understand why you disagree before lecturing to them. Listen first; you might be surprised where their confusion comes from. People are smarter than you think.

Read broadly. The public might only have a cursory understanding of what you do, or no understanding at all, but everyone loves connecting the dots between something they just learned and something they already know about. Understand what people are interested these days. Personally, I don’t study high energy physics or cosmology or anything even remotely like that, but most physics discussions I have with laypeople revolve around that. I’d look pretty dumb if I couldn’t at least entertain their thoughts.

And on the topic of being an expert, you spent a huge part of your life becoming an expert. Upon earning a PhD. you are the global expert in “insert thesis title”. No one knows more than you. Yes, this is bound to be a narrow area of expertise, but you are still the expert. And as an expert, it’s your job to have opinions on related topics. No one expects you to know everything, but you’ve been training yourself to be able to take new information, process it, and come up with an opinion on it. And a scientist should know better than anyone – just because you had an opinion on something, when more facts present themselves, you are allowed to revise your opinion. You can be wrong, but you also have to be gracious in your ignorance.

And stop saying “I don’t feel qualified to have an opinion”! That’s tantamount to saying “I don’t care enough to give you a thoughtful answer”!

Finally, be an ambassador for science. You do it because you love it. Don’t you want others to feel the joy science brings to your life?



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