Friday, January 20, 2012

Science to the Layperson

Every few years conversations with my wife of 11 years turn to the topic of what it is that I do for work. Generally this is a result of her having a social conversation with an inquisitive colleague or friend and invariably ends with her admitting to “no clue”. Now, one would think that someone who has been with me since my working various positions at a hospital as a premed hopeful, through a graduate program in cellular and molecular biology, and the last 5 years working in industry, most recently in the role of applications scientist, would at least be able to rattle off a few key points from my endeavors. However, this is not the case. Sure she can throw around words like cells and proteins (which is generally part of the standard issue hand-waving response) and maybe even throw in the more recent microplates and reader aspects of my current role. But the fact remains there is a real gap in the understanding of what most scientists do, regardless of their field of interest or role, and how it relates to the real world as seen from the perspective of the layperson. I must confess that many of us are to blame for the current disconnect that exists. I have been scolded by said spouse on numerous occasions for talking “way over the head” of many a tentative ear (especially my 6 year old son).

Over the years I have polished up a few introductory sentences that have served me well to answer the often asked question, “So, what do you do for work”. I believe it was a professor that once told me of the powerful acronym KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid (likely to save them from having to read lengthy hand-waving rhetoric on exams). Regardless, maintaining an awareness of the audience being addressed can significantly increase the possibility of a successful dialogue and interpretation by a layperson. While this is certainly not a new idea, it is gaining considerably more attention given the high costs associated with medical and health care and prescription medications. How many individuals are aware of the staggering cost (estimated at over $1 billion) to bring a single new drug to market? Or, as mentioned in a previous post on Scientifically Speaking, the inherent dangers of experimental treatment with stem cells being offered in healthcare facilities in many countries? This issue will continue to become ever more relevant as the ease with which information is accessible continues to grow. It remains the responsibility of those presenting scientific information to insure it is presented in a manner in which the target audience is clear on its interpretation.

By: BioTek Instruments

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