Lessons from Bill Nye on Communicating Science

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I’m sure we all felt like budding scientists after watching an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy, but how exactly did he accomplish teaching basic science to millions of children? He did this by SIMPLIFYING concepts and being ENGAGING. These strategies can also be used in research at the university level.

One of the biggest challenges I have faced during my time as an undergraduate researcher is communicating my research to people outside of my field. It is very easy to rely on jargon and abbreviations to explain complex ideas. However, when the audience lacks the strong foundational knowledge about your topic, it would be too difficult to understand.

My research topic is on a unique protein-misfolding disease called cardiac amyloidosis. I would expect this illness to be completely foreign to most people if they don’t have extensive knowledge about this field or have cardiac amyloidosis themselves. I think the first step to communicate my topic is to explain what cardiac amyloidosis is. I would start by defining the word.

Cardiac = heart

amyloid = clumps or deposits of protein

cardiac + amyloidosis = clumps of misfolded protein that damage the heart

Breaking down concepts into simpler terms is just one example of a strategy I would use to communicate my research to a broad audience. Another new strategy I learned this week is using metaphors that are easily understood or relatable. For example, during the breakout sessions, I compared point mutations to switching out a single word in a sentence for another. Depending on the word change the sentence may not make sense anymore, which is somewhat similar to what happens when there is a point mutation along a stretch of DNA. I think by simplifying and avoiding jargon I can gradually build up the audience’s understanding while also conveying the problem I am addressing, as well as the significance and purpose of my research.

The next hurdle to jump over is to make my research engaging for the audience. The best presentations leave the audience feeling informed as well as entertained. Bill Nye accomplished this using silly demonstrations to appeal to kids, but researchers at our level may opt for making their research relatable to their audience or using quality graphics. As undergraduate researchers, we have a lot of flexibility in how we choose to make our presentations “not boring”, and it is often the most fun aspect of presenting.

My current professional goal is to become a physician-scientist. I will most likely have to communicate with patients and potential funding opportunities for my research. I will need to be able to share my research in engaging and exciting ways to funders so that they are motivated to provide their resources. If I interact with patients the information I share needs to be palatable and easily understood so that they feel comfortable with any treatments I would recommend or prescribe.

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