I remember the day in my high school biology class that the concept of “the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell” turned into “ATP synthesis by oxidative phosphorylation (OXPHOS) and electron transfers down the electron transport chain (ETC)”, and how during college, as I researched even more about the mitochondria, that turned into “mitochondrial dysfunction induced by zinc influx through the mitochondrial calcium uniporter (MCU) induces mitochondrial permeability transition pore (mPTP) opening and ETC inhibition, leading to release of pro-apoptotic peptides in neurons.”
Throughout my academic career, my understanding of the topics I am studying becomes increasingly in-depth, specific, and esoteric. However, I realize that in addition to understanding every nitty-gritty detail so that I can discuss my work with experts in my field, it’s equally (if not more) important to take a step back and see my research from a general audience’s view. This allows a broader view of my work outside the “academic bubble” out of which it can be so difficult to reach.
In order to communicate why my research is important to someone who knows nothing about my field, I have found that using familiar language and analogies comparing the hard science of my project to something more easily accessible to the audience can be very effective—for instance, “the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell”, as cliché as it is. Using this analogy that most people have heard before, it becomes easier to explain why zinc deregulation, which affects the ETC and mPTP opening (the “machinery of the powerhouse”), can lead to mitochondrial dysfunction and cell death (“the entire city shuts down because the powerhouse cannot supply energy”).
Finally, tying in all the neurobiology aspects of my project to the bigger picture of “why should we care?” is a crucial part of explaining its importance. The problem of neurodegeneration, including Alzheimer’s Disease (AD), Parkinson’s Disease (PD), and stroke, is familiar to most people; thus, explaining how my project attempts to understand some of the underlying causes and potential treatments for these diseases helps people understand why it’s so important.
In the future career as a physician-scientist, I will need to communicate effectively with my patients, who may not have the same medical background as myself. For instance, when diagnosing a patient with PD, I would need to strike a balance between effectively educating my patient about their condition and bombarding them with the jargon-filled science of dopamine that they may not need to know. Additionally, from the science side of my future pursuits, I will need to communicate my work with other researchers who may not be in my field—a skill that I will continue to hone over the course of this fellowship and beyond.