Communicating Structural Biology to an Interdisciplinary Community

One of the often-overlooked benefits of doing STEM research, specifically in the fields of health science or pharmacology, is that the applicability and importance of the research is never questioned. Being able to answer and explain the question of “why” has always been far easier for me than to explain the question of “how” when it comes to talking about my research. While it obviously does not take a lot of effort on my part to convince an audience that things like limiting tumor growth and preventing blindness after traumatic eye injuries are important, I still find myself devoting a fair bit of time to it. Once people are able to grasp the obvious importance of the issue (which happens quite easily), I then devote time to explaining, “Okay, here’s a specific problem that we all agree is bad. Why is our solution the best one? Why is it unique? How is this changing the field?”. Which are questions whose answers are not as easily understood. My mentor, Dr. VanDemark, always tells me that during any presentation, especially to a general or interdisciplinary audience, the chances of people understanding the science are low. He says what I should focus most of my time on is the importance of the problem and how my project, as nebulous as the methodologies may be to some, is able to uniquely solve it in a way that is worth devoting time (and hopefully some money) to. I have found this to be a guiding factor in how I present my research in a way that people are able to understand. By starting with a problem, and then talking about the broad biological concepts that are responsible for it, I can slowly work my way down into the minutiae of the protein biology that I am conducting. By maintaining a context for the biochemistry I am doing, I am always able to relate the nuances of my project back to the larger issues that the audience hopefully finds accessible, which allows them to understand how my science is impacting health outcomes for future patients.

My current professional goal as it stands is to pursue a PhD in structural biology, and hopefully end up either as a professor or working in the pharmaceutical industry. In either scenario, the vast majority of my time will be spent presenting and talking to people that, even if they are scientists, aren’t structural biologists. What this means is that I’ll need to utilize the above-mentioned approach to explaining my research, because the methodologies that I use in any type of experimentation are likely something that they have little to no experience with or understanding of. Necessarily, I need to make sure that people are understanding my research, or at least the importance of me conducting it, in order to continue to be able to spend my time in the lab pursuing these questions.

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