An Open Letter to Tufts Scientists

Beakthrough-Logo-Cover-photo-FBBelieve it or not, we just can’t do it all. Over the last few years working with Breakthrough, we have observed that science communication is falling by the wayside to our scholastic responsibilities. It appears that each year we receive fewer and fewer submissions for this same reason. This semester, even getting a complete magazine together has been an incredible struggle. We understand and sympathize with our fellow students in this regard. Yet the ability to communicate science in an accessible and appealing manner is not only beneficial to one’s audience, but a crucial stepping stone to being a better student and a better researcher.

Think back to some of your first science-related memories. Most likely they involve shows like “Bill Nye the Science Guy” or “The Magic School Bus” that presented complex scientific concepts in an age- and audience-appropriate manner. Perhaps it was the joy of learning and discovery you experienced from these shows that drew you towards science in the first place. Nowadays, shows like “Cosmos” continue to fill a similar role for a wider audience. By conveying information in an understandable way, they are able to both inspire the next wave of science enthusiasts as well as inform a broad demographic about the incredible universe we inhabit.

This maxim applies even more heavily to research and scientific professions. The entire concept of the scientific method relies upon the foundation of knowledge built up over years of study to support further investigation. Keeping information under wraps prevents future work from building upon it. Ineffective communication of that information has nearly the same result; if no one can understand your work, it will ultimately be ignored or forgotten. Therefore effective communication is required for the continuation of scientific efforts and the sharing of ideas between researchers. These skills are also vital for the day-to-day expectations of those working in scientific fields. As a medical professional, an engineer or scientist in industry, or as a professor, it will be crucial to effectively describe and defend your work. Communication is required in publications, grant proposals, thesis defenses, lab presentations, and the classroom. Many of these are even used to evaluate the success of a professor or professional. Technical prowess will take you quite far, but it is the ability to describe your efforts and results that will ultimately set you apart from the rest of those in your field.

Communicating complex concepts is not a natural skill for most of us. As science communicators, we are often forced to walk the fine line between too much and too little detail, or between patronizing and confusing. The best way to master this is to practice often and get peer feedback. It will make you a better student, improve your grades on lab reports and papers, and help you become a better teacher for yourself and for others. Our busy schedules might make such practice difficult to maintain. However, as you develop your expertise in science communication the process will only become faster and easier. Even experienced writers often practice by free-writing at least 50 words a day. The sooner you start cultivating this important skill, the easier it will be when the time comes for you to present your first big finding. Our challenge to you is to write something, anything, as your first step into science communication and submit it to Breakthrough. Through us, you have an outlet and a platform to discuss science as the next generation of innovative and interdisciplinary researchers.

For us, Breakthrough has become a place to indulge in scientific storytelling. We have begun to appreciate that inventing the right metaphor, the right phrase, or the right image to explain a concept is both challenging and rewarding. We have learned how to read others’ stories and point out a missing plot point or a key character. Yes, we worried at first (and still worry) that in communicating science someone would uncover some fundamental misconceptions in our thinking. We are happy to report that the world is simply much kinder to us than we are to ourselves. As seniors, we hope to leave behind an organization through which others will be able to learn these same lessons. After all, science should never be performed in a vacuum. Unless, of course, the experimental procedure dictates it.

Article co-written by editors Jen Hammelman and Jeremy Marcus

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