What does it take to be a scientist in addition to collecting and analyzing data?
Since most people aren’t looking in on your lab mice or peering at the graphs on your computer screen, they rely on you to shape the meaning of your work. In the competitive world of academia, where the ‘impact’ of publications is becoming just as important as the quantity of publications, communication skills are becoming a key part of a scientist’s job.
Scientists have traditionally been reluctant to engage with the media and the public. Yet if scientists step back and leave communication in the hands of the media, their work is too often reduced to ‘morning show gossip’. (See John Oliver’s entertaining clip on science hype here.) It’s incumbent on the scientists themselves to communicate about their work responsibly and lead others do the same.
Because of the general excitement over microbiome science and its potential to impact so many aspects of how humans live, results from this field are particularly prone to distortion in the media. Here are some examples of how science communication can go awry (keeping in mind that I’m not trying to pick on any particular news outlet):
Obesity could be contagious, scientists say (based on this study)
Gut bacteria affecting both our cravings and moods to get us to eat what they want: University of New Mexico Study (based on this review/opinion)
Exercise is good for your gut bacteria, too (based on this study)
In the next Human Microbiome Journal Club, I’ll be visiting to lead a discussion on why the next generation of scientists will need to become ten percent scientist, ninety percent communicator. It’s not that you need to spend ninety percent of your time communicating — but that you’ll benefit throughout your career if you constantly think about the role of your work in the wider world.
From my perspective as a science writer, I’ll give you some tips on how to get others interested in your research without resorting to cheap tricks. We’ll cover the different audiences who need to know about your work and how to target each one. I’ll give you some examples of microbiome scientists who are great communicators, and we’ll talk about a few guidelines on how to start engaging with a minimal commitment of time.
Join us in MUMC 3N10A on Friday, June 3rd, at 3:00 pm. We’ll continue the discussion over drinks afterward!
Science writer Kristina Campbell, from Victoria, BC, is a freelancer whose work has appeared in publications throughout North America and Europe. She consults on microbiome-related medical education projects and works as a web editor for the Gut Microbiota for Health website. Kristina is also co-author of an upcoming cookbook and an Elsevier textbook on nutrition & gut microbiota.