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  • Writer's pictureEmily Poulin

Can Someone Pass the Universal Translator?

It's that time of year again folks. The holidays. Catching up with family and friends, and the inevitable questions about how work is going.

-"Still working on colon cancer?"


-"Any interesting discoveries?"

-"Well, we've been looking at how this one mutation has different molecular and biochemical properties than this other mutation. We're hoping to develop mutation-specific targeted therapies."

A sure way to end the conversation quickly.

This is just one of the reasons why so many are frustrated by scientists and "science speak." People genuinely WANT to understand and learn something new and interesting, and generally we WANT to share those new and interesting things. But as the scientists, we have to step it up and break it down if we want to communicate our work to the non-scientist community.

So why is it so hard to bridge the gap?

The main culprit is the language of science and the fact that talking about very specific scientific problems requires a lot of background knowledge.

When I asked my husband what he thought of my thesis defense, he said, "Well, I understood the words mice, colon, and stem cell. But that's about it. It sounded impressive?"

And I had tried to make it easier to understand.

As a Ph.D.-trained scientist three years into a research career, I started learning the language of science in high school. That makes about fifteen years of training, with eight of those years strictly studying biology. With that kind of training, scientists can communicate with each other just fine. But when it comes to conveying complex ideas to the untrained ear, we are notoriously bad.

Ok. So it's pretty well established that scientists have a bad reputation for communication. In today's climate, we get frustrated when people say things about science that aren't true. But if we want people to care about the truth, WE have to care to take the time to explain things in a meaningful way.

The pervasiveness of science and the need to understand it illustrate the critical need for scientists to be better. These issues are apparent everywhere, from healthcare to politics to the environment. Better science communications can help people make informed decisions.

For example, do you automatically assume genetically modified foods are bad for you? If so, think about the reasons why this might be. Do you understand what GMO means and how GMOs are used in the food industry? How much does not understanding the details of GMOs contribute to the assumption that they are bad for you?

Breaking it down doesn't necessarily mean dumbing it down. We can use metaphors that others can relate to or give listeners the basics they need to understand.

If we come back to my original dinner table conversation, I can explain that a mutation is a mistake in DNA that might lead to cancer. Cancer occurs when normal cells of the body become transformed by mutations into abnormal cells. Cancer-causing mutations allow cancer cells to grow without stopping. The goal of cancer treatment is to figure out how to stop tumors from growing. In particular, my research is focused on trying to study how different mutations act so that we can find ways to stop it.

See? That wasn't so bad.

Yes, it's hard for us to communicate effectively. Yes, we get lazy and leave it for someone else. But particularly in today's climate of skepticism, it's more important than ever.

Let's be better together.

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