Banner by Taylor Siegfried

Making Sense of Science

by Anna Cassidy

Science, like so many other disciplines, has been subdivided into specialties. Scientists are no longer studying the human body in general, the plant as a whole, nor even a particular cell. Instead, they focus on a particular molecule. This has catalyzed the development of jargon that no longer applies to all of science but rather to very specialized subcategories. Our dedication to obscure terminology has led to the inaccessibility of science, even within the scientific profession. We, as scientists, become so immersed in our microscopic worlds that we fail to notice the bigger picture.

Science must be accessible if we are to share new discoveries within the larger scientific community, let alone with those in other professions. Since jargon is not disappearing any time soon, it all comes down to communication. A doctor must practice this every day as they strive to explain a diagnosis to patients that are often unfamiliar with medical terminology. However, as scientists, we may not have the opportunity to utilize this type of communication on a regular basis. Siloed in our labs and fully immersed in our work, we forget that we are speaking a different language.

When I first joined the Hammond lab last spring, I was overwhelmed by all the terminology that was thrown at me during my first couple of days: pPAmCherry, transfection, BamHI and cos-7 cells, for example. Over the coming months I came to learn what each of these things were, why they were important, and how they were applicable to our research. As I eagerly shared what I had been working on with my peers, their faces became perplexed, rather than mirroring the excitement that I felt. I realized that I had forgotten that I was learning this new language. Recognizing that there is a problem is the first step to fixing it. Only once I realized that I was speaking to my peers in a language that they did not know was I able to translate the information into a more universal language that they could grasp. This is admittedly not easy – in fact, it was perhaps harder than learning the original information.

The translation of scientific jargon is essential to making science more accessible. We all know that science has many real-world implications in areas such as policy, medicine and education. However, when scientific information and discoveries are not communicated in a way that is understandable to everyone, it becomes a burden to be educated. Reading a scientific journal, for instance, often requires significant background knowledge in the subject matter. We need to share this information in a way that nonscientists can understand. As an academic, I am still practicing my ability to read and understand these reports, so how is a layperson supposed to even attempt to comprehend them?

When sharing our research with others, we must take a macroscopic view. This is what helps connect the disciplines and create a unified and understandable big picture. Yet since so much of modern research has a narrow, microscopic perspective, its larger significance can be unclear. I did not have a clear grasp on what the overall purpose of my research was until nearly a semester in – and I am still learning about more applications of my project. Why my research mattered was unclear, yet it was the very thing that needed to be shared. As fascinating as the small details may be, they are not why the research is being performed in the first place.

Not only is an understanding of the relevance of research important, the ability to share information among scientific disciplines improves everyone’s work. Knowledge grows through discussion. Like a tree, the project is rooted in one area, but also has roots that receive nutrients from far away. Discussing their own research with others can help a scientist develop a different perspective on a problem, thus enabling growth. However, it is challenging to share highly specialized research without using jargon. This is where practice is needed. If we cannot talk about our research in a way that is understandable, we lose a valuable opportunity to learn from our peers. Clear and concise communication is also necessary for attaining funding, which makes science possible in the first place.

Science is incredibly exciting to those of us who are performing it, but it has become challenging to share my passion with others or prompt enthusiasm regarding what I am investigating. By learning to discuss science in a commonly understood language, we become able to share our zest with others. While we may thrive on the prospect of discovery alone, our work becomes far more relevant when we can present it effectively. The next time you share your research, do not forget to take a moment to translate.