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Let’s talk about me ― making your science the focus

by Guest Author on 29 May 2014

Martin Christlieb (Image credit: Martin Christlieb)

Martin Christlieb (Image copyright: Martin Christlieb)

MRC researchers get involved in all kinds of activities that help members of the public engage with medical research. From extracting DNA from strawberries to looking at cells under a microscope, there is an array of hands-on experiments to guide people through. But Dr Martin Christlieb, the public engagement manager for Oxford’s Department of Oncology, thinks that engagement works best when researchers introduce people to their own research. Here he explains why.

If you want to engage people with science you’ll need to entertain and convince as well as inform and educate. That takes passion. You’re most likely to display passion if you feel it, and that means talking about the science that gets you out of bed each morning.

That means talking about your work: you care about your work, right? You know that what you do is important, and that what you do is part of a bigger picture of understanding how to tackle disease.

The money that funds research comes from public sources; funding councils distribute money taken in tax, and charities the money they collect in donations. A scientist’s part of the deal must be to make an effort to communicate what we’re doing, how it’s going, and what impact it might make.

The public need to be told a story, and a compelling one. Take your work, choose one or two pivotal bullet points and then build a short story that tells the tale simply and briefly.

Like any good story, people need to be introduced to the main characters. Our area is oncology, so we usually have to paint a new picture of cancer. For many people the old image of a tumour as a ball of dividing cells is still current, but it’s difficult to understand much of what goes on in cancer research if you see tumours this way.

Biomarkers, molecular imaging, radio-sensitisers, viral therapies; they all require us to see cancer as a complex, evolving, variable and fundamentally molecular disease. Cancer is the main character, albeit the bad guy. So we need to know what makes the bad guy tick and where his key weaknesses are. That way we’ll understand how the good guys (therapies) are going to defeat him.

Once you have your characters in place, think about the plot. People want to understand the challenges in the scientific research ― they also want to understand what’s happening, and happening now. Today’s cancer research is complex, so telling the story is a case of taking small steps that are easy to follow. But we must also make sure that the journey is a compelling and rewarding one.

MRI images of passion fruit and fig (Image copyright: University of Oxford's Department of Oncology/Dr Niki Sibson*)

MRI images of passion fruit and fig (Image copyright: University of Oxford’s Department of Oncology/Dr Niki Sibson*)

One of our most successful recent activities involves MRI and fruit! MRI scans of fruit are quite spectacular and get people interested; they hook people in so the audience gets quite passionate about guessing what each scan is. This simple activity is enough to create a rapport. We can then introduce them to a life-sized model of the brain and describe how large tumours must get before they become visible on an MRI scan (the size of a small marble or around 10 millimetres).

Our bad guy clearly has the upper hand, but he has a weakness ― the presence of the tumour creates a molecular signature in the blood vessels. This is enough for the good guys to exploit and unmask the villain much earlier than normally possible (when they’re the size of a sugar grain). Faced with the comparison between a marble and a grain of sugar, the public instinctively grasp the nature of the advancement, made more compelling by the fact that the scientists themselves passionately believe that what they are doing will make a difference.

Telling public stories means more plot and less detail; so you can’t fall back on your last conference presentation. Keep it light on graphs and charts, and even lighter on Western blots and stains. Above all, practise; you are pitching your story to your funders. You mustn’t run over time. And you will, unless you run through it a few times before the day. Take things out of the story if necessary.

Attitudes are contagious. If you stand in front of people with a fire in your eyes, a smile on your face, and animated body language; then you will project passion, and people will respond.

Lord Reith once told the BBC to entertain, inform and educate. This seems like a good place to start, although you might add ‘influence’ to the list. Informing and educating we do all the time ― with each other and with our students ― but influencing and entertaining people takes passion. So talk about your work. Talk about the work that has engrossed you for years.

Get out there, shed your inhibitions and scientific reserve and be passionate. It’s a hell of a feeling to carry an audience with you and realise that all those people think that what you do is as amazing as you do.

Martin Christlieb




Great article! MRI of fruit has a long history – see the ‘Nottingham orange’ from about 1978 http://bit.ly/U6IX12 (pdf)

author avatar by Ruth Dixon (@ruth_dixon) on 02-Jun-2014 11:17

You hit the nail on the head re what we’re aiming to communicate (and inspire)in an ESA 2014 workshop I’m co-organizing. Called “Beyond the written word” we’re focusing on multimedia communication as a way to inspire and empower participants to communicate about science. Here’s a link to an EcoTone post we did about the workshop recently: http://www.esa.org/esablog/meetings/from-oceans-to-mountains-its-all-about-ecology-communication/.

Beyond that workshop, though, my personal/professional mission to catalyze a shift towards more public communication. The work I’m drawn to is providing tools, hands-on experience, and coaching to empower scientists to engage with people outside academia. In particular, I think there is great value in presenting yourself as a real live human doing science.

Actually, I just did a blog post about three basic reasons why I think telling stories about scientists (not just science) is key to communicating effectively about science: http://commnatural.com/2014/06/18/scientistbehindthescience/. (*I’ve added a link to your post, as you’ve articulated the point so well.)

With a wildlife ecologist husband, my social and professional spheres are loaded with scientists of all sorts. And I can think of very few that have made the leap to regularly communicating publicly about their science (beyond the typical academic outlets). Doing so is an on-going (and sometimes slow-going) process, for sure. But that’s no reason to leave the important work of explaining why science is relevant every day to someone else.

author avatar by Bethann G. Merkle (@CommNatural) on 20-Jun-2014 15:07

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