Tiny life sticking to growing green things

Communicating science to non-scientists is important, but often the jargon scientists use makes their work impenetrable, even to other scientists. So how can scientific writing become less obscure and more approachable? Randall Monroe, the creator of xkcd webcomics, gave it a go with his annotation of a Saturn V rocket blueprint. The annotation used only the 1000 most commonly used words, so instead of Saturn V the name of the rocket became Up Goer Five.

So can scientific communication in my field (microbiology and genetics) be effective using only the 1000 most commonly used words? In the interests of simplifying my writing, I wrote a summary of my PhD project using only the 1000 most commonly used words (using this text editor):

This study wants to find the ‘small pieces’ which are important for tiny life (the helping ones) to stick to growing green things. Pseudomonas tiny life are some of the best helping tiny life and one of the most well-known ones, Pseudomonas protegens Pf-5, can control problems in growing green things used for food. But in the field, helping tiny life show does not stick to growing green things very often or very well. This study will look at the whole set of ‘small pieces’ important for P. protegens Pf-5 to stick to growing green things. Making tiny life stick better to growing green things will help lower problems with growing green things and better the return from growing green things used for food, which are important both here and around the world.

This is hilarious and obviously oversimplified (to the point of not making sense in a lot of places). For comparison, this is the ‘normal’ version of my project summary:

The project aims to identify the essential genes for colonisation of plant surfaces by biocontrol bacteria. Pseudomonas bacteria are some of the most successful biocontrol bacteria and one of the most well-known strains, Pseudomonas protegens Pf-5, has the ability to control diseases that affect cotton, wheat, pea, maize, tomatoes and potatoes. Despite this, field trials of biocontrol bacteria show a lack of reliability and persistence on plant surfaces. This project will conduct a genome-wide study of genes essential for P. protegens Pf-5 colonisation of plant surfaces. Enabling reliable colonisation of crop roots by biocontrol bacteria will contribute to lowering plant disease and increasing crop yields, which are important both in Australia and internationally.

From this exercise I learned that some level of complicated language is important to communicate a precise meaning (important in science), but not every complicated word is necessary. Sometimes the language I choose can be off-putting to the reader, make my work harder to understand and appear pretentious even when I don’t mean it to.

So overall, science writing in my field using the 1000 most used words is not practical and makes it harder, not easier to understand (even nonsensical in places). But it’s an interesting exercise to see just how much jargon you’ve used or if a simpler word will do in place of a complicated one. And wouldn’t we all like simpler rather than complex!

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Storytelling in Science

I’m always looking for that something extra to make my presentations more interesting and stand out from the rest of the crowd. I like to think I’ve mastered the standard recommendations for improving presentations such as:

  • Not too many slides – about one per minute is good
  • Don’t just read out your slides, add something extra to your talk
  • Reduce the number of words on each slide, and make sure to use a big font size
  • Use images to illustrate concepts if possible, but don’t add irrelevant pictures
  • Look at the audience (they’re not as scary as you’ve made them out to be in your head – they’re probably either scared witless about doing their own presentation in a minute or not even really listening)

Randy Olson’s TED talk about adding story to science presentations was something new for me. He’s a science professor turned filmaker and science communicator who is passionate about bringing more ‘story’ into science communication to increase the general public’s engagement with science.

He desribes the standard model for scientific presentations as ‘here’s my data and here’s my results and here’s a graph and here’s another graph and here’s my conclusions’. This makes for clear communication, but it’s not very interesting.

Randy’s idea is for science presenters to use the AND, BUT, THEREFORE rule to create a story and more interesting talks, not just a boring bunch of facts. See Randy’s presentation at TEDMED 2013 here. I’m going to try it out in my next presentation and see how it feels.

Don't be such a scientist

He’s also written a book called ‘Don’t Be Such a Scientist‘ which discusses the idea that the general public doesn’t ‘speak science’ and how to communicate science ideas with ‘more heart and less head’. I’ll let you know how it goes.