Communication, Communication, Communication

One of the nearly weekly whiteboard drawings where Grant would give me context for what we’re studying and explain assays

I’ve always considered myself to be a pretty competent communicator. I grew up in a pretty big household where we were taught not to hold in our feelings if we were upset, and that you can only solve problems by talking about them. I’m the friend that gives the relationship advice of “Just communicate! Tell them how you’re feeling! They can’t read your mind!”. I study best by explaining things out loud, whether that be through “teaching” my friends or just talking to my empty apartment. But when it comes to communicating my research I get a little… stressed.

When I first joined the lab I’m currently researching in, I was a sophomore with the position of lab aide, tasked with doing dishes and making solutions in order to better understand how the lab worked and meet all the undergrad and grad researchers. I was also responsible for attending lab meetings and research presentations, most of which I didn’t understand… at all. I hadn’t taken biochemistry yet and had barely survived genetics, so gene mutations, protein names, degradation pathways, enzyme misfolding, all went way over my head. So much so that I didn’t even understand why the research was being done; I couldn’t get past trying to figure out what ENaC or ApoB were (for those also confused, proteins involved in salt homeostasis and fat transport respectively).

So when it came time for me to start my own research project, after a semester and a summer as a confused lab aide, and also to start talking about my project, I was stressed. First and foremost, I was stressed that I would never understand anything and everyone would think I was an imposter and didn’t deserve to be there. And second, I was worried that I would fall into line with everyone else and start listing off proteins and pathways and mutations, assuming that everyone knew what I was talking about. Shoutout to my grad student mentor Grant though, who was so understanding and kind in explaining everything to me, even if it took 3 tries and some whiteboard drawings in the process. Grant put our whole project into context, explaining why studying this one little protein was so important, and everything started to make more sense. That was worry number 1 checked off (I’ll get to worry number 2 in a second); I just needed a little help and a little context in order to make sense of what was going on and what I was doing.

Having context and a better understanding of significance made all the difference for me, and after watching the videos and doing the readings for our meeting this week, I realized that context is kind of the most important part of presenting your research. No one is going to connect to you rambling on about protein assays and denaturing and degradation pathways, especially if they have no idea why it’s important. They want to know why they should be listening to you, they need a reason not to tune out your random strings of letters and numbers that mean nothing to them. Hsp104, ERAD, GD, GD*, all of these probably mean nothing to you and if I were you I would not want to take the time to look them up and try and understand what’s going on. Context made all the difference for me and I am a science person, so I can understand how that context would be even more important if you didn’t have any background science knowledge.

Now I’ll be honest, when it came to problem number 2, worrying that I was falling into the same pattern as everyone else, of research explanations heavy in jargon, I had done just that. Other undergrad researchers in my lab would ask me about my project and how it was going, and it was much easier to ramble off about ERAD and CHX chases, solubility assays, temperature sensitive mutations. They understood me so why bother doing anything else? Plus both my parents are scientists, so anytime they asked about how things were going, school, research, I didn’t feel the need to “translate” anything for them either. Truthfully, it wasn’t until I applied for the Brackenridge that I needed to consciously take the time to make my research understandable for people outside the sciences. And it took work, defining terms I’ve known the meaning of since I was in high school, explaining methodologies without jargon, and yes, including context. And when I had my non-biochem friends (shoutout to my bffs Kenny the engineer and Shelby the business student) read my research proposal, I was able to see where I had left holes, where things didn’t make sense or weren’t defined well, where I needed to emphasize the significance. And I also got the chance to talk to my friends about my project! Kenny was able to ask me questions about what I was doing at work every day because he understood what I was doing! I had just assumed I wouldn’t be able to talk to my friends about my work but really that’s because I hadn’t taken the time to communicate in a way that they could understand.

Before I was even accepted to the Brackenridge, I had already learned a lot about communicating my project in a way that people outside my discipline could understand. If I hadn’t gotten this fellowship, I would’ve already benefited greatly from having just applied. But now that I’m here, I get even more chances to explain my research to others, to find metaphors to connect my project to things that others may understand better (like how protein folding is kind of like origami, every fold has to happen in the right place at the right time for your final product to be correct), and to emphasize significance and context. I know that doing research in a health adjacent field makes emphasizing the significance a bit easier, everyone knows how debilitating Alzheimer’s Disease is, but I’m learning how important it is to utilize this fact to help others better understand why my research is important.

My (hopefully) future career as a doctor means that I’m going to spend the rest of my life surrounded by both people who went to school for 12 years to understand every little detail about the human body, and people from incredibly varied backgrounds who just want me to explain why they’re sick and hurting and help them heal. It would be easy to fall into using jargon language and words so long they contain almost every letter of the alphabet because I’ll be surrounded by other doctors, PAs, nurses. But that’s not what my future patients will need. I mean, everyone has seen episodes of Grey’s Anatomy where the residents tell the interns to use “real English” and not doctor speak. On a daily basis I’ll be interacting with individuals outside my field, and they will be counting on me to explain their symptoms and diagnoses and treatments in a way that they can understand. My future patients won’t need me to spend 20 minutes explaining every protein interaction that causes their disease, they need me to use metaphors and common language to explain what is going on and how we can work together to fix it. Giving my patients context, not using jargon, taking the time to explain what is really going on and the significance, is incredibly vital in having a strong relationship with my patients and making sure that they feel seen and understood, ensuring that they don’t feel like a box to be checked so I can move on to the next room. My future career won’t necessarily involve communicating my personal research, but communicating with audiences outside my field will still be incredibly important, and thus the skills I have learned (and am still learning) will prove vital.

I now know how important context and significance are, and I understand that I can push that information a bit more than the specifics of protein interactions. Because in the grand scheme of things, that’s what people will connect to, what will make them understand my work and be interested in what I’m doing. The way that my work could help their grandmother with Alzheimer’s, or their mother who is genetically predisposed. And in the future that is what people will connect to and will help them feel more understood and less fearful about what is to come.

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