This is an article from the spring 2018 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
Groans of agreement all around. We’re sitting in the recording studio at WCBN-FM, the campus radio station, in the basement of the Student Activities Building on campus. It’s an unlikely spot for these four researchers. Vinyl records and CDs crowd the shelves that teeter against all walls. Stickers decorate every available surface in the studio lobby. Hand-scrawled graffiti covers the table where the scientists adjust their headphones, microphones inches away from their lips.
The group is recording a follow-up conversation to the first season of the How to Science podcast. In the studio are three of the scientists from the show—LSA Professors Tim McKay and Trisha Wittkopp, along with Ph.D. student Abby Lamb—and LSA Professor Monica Dus, the host. As the co-producer, I’m recording the discussion on the other side of the glass partition that separates the recording studio from the production room, fiddling with knobs on the soundboard. I find myself lowering the volume when the group’s laughter bursts through the speakers and dialing up the sound as their voices return to a thoughtfully quiet register.
Each episode in the first season of the podcast puts listeners in a room with Dus and one guest scientist to sit in on a casual conversation. Each scientist shares how they’ve wound their way through life to the lab, the beauty they see in nature, and their excitement about research. The podcast provides a peek under their lab coats, revealing that scientists are humans, not robots. A surprising number of them are the first in their family to graduate from college. They’re funny, self-deprecating, and have real lives outside the lab.
The format of How to Science is rare. Most often, TV series, news segments, documentaries, and popular podcasts are produced and hosted by journalists. In our case, podcast host Monica Dus is a scientist on the U-M faculty who researches feeding behavior, obesity, and the brain. I have a Ph.D. (2012) from LSA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) and spin records as a DJ for a weekly late-night radio show on WCBN. Dus and I had been talking about podcasts separately with various folks across campus until a colleague connected us. Not long after, our brainstorms turned into a project vision, which then became concrete plans for an audio series.
Since then, we’ve produced the first season of the podcast, which includes stories from a geneticist who celebrates lab accomplishments with donuts and champagne; a grad student who questioned her creationist background and became an evolutionary biologist; a professor who points out the difference between science and magic; a neuroscientist who developed a fascination with the human brain while she was still an art student working with autistic people; and a certified forklift operator who now has decades of experience in astrophysics research.
Today, we’ve assembled these scientists in the studio to get more personal about trying—and sometimes failing—to talk with people about what we care about. In this case: science.
“I didn’t try hard enough to invite conversation with the audience that I was actually trying to reach. Instead, I became this person that they would go home and dismiss,” says Tim McKay about a foiled attempt to share his thrills about the origin of our universe with a set of public talks that he called “How We Know the Big Bang Really Happened.” McKay teaches and does research in LSA’s Departments of Physics and Astronomy, along with the School of Education, and founded U-M’s Digital Innovation Greenhouse.
“I came across as not wanting to have a conversation with them and only wanting to insist that I know the truth about this. And they can either accept it or not.
“It felt like a real failure.”
But what does success even look like? Take a box of brownie mix as a thought experiment.
Imagine the back of the box: A table of nutritional information crowds the cardboard. The print is small enough so that all the multisyllabic chemical names fit in the allotted space. In an example attributed to Van Jones, former President Obama’s Special Advisor for Green Jobs, the back of a brownie box looks just like how scientists most often talk to people: bland, fact-obsessed, far removed from what’s actually exciting about what’s in the box.
The front of the brownie mix, though, can hardly fit a giant image of a gooey, delicious, baked brownie. That’s the access point that actually resonates with people and pulls the brownie mix off the grocery shelf and into someone’s shopping cart.
Communication success is the conversion of information to enjoyment: the front of the box.
“There is nothing deeply special about communicating science,” McKay said during an event last year about scicomm—that’s short for “science communication”—which was hosted by U-M’s Office of Academic Innovation and U-M’s Researchers Expanding Lay-Audience Teaching and Engagement (RELATE) group.
In other words, similar values and successes apply whether you are giving a talk about the Big Bang, your aunt is explaining her woodworking hobby, or a couple is joking around on their first date.
And none of it is easy.
Communicating honestly about complex things takes work. It also takes longer than you expect. It’s uncomfortable. You have to be willing to make mistakes, lean into the pain, and keep trying until you get better.
For LSA Professor Meghan Duffy, the discomfort is temporary and sometimes part of the fun. Writing on her blog, here’s how she remembers preparing a talk that she eventually gave to a national audience of tens of thousands of people:
“Monday afternoon, I let the kids play at the park after school, pulled out my index cards, and gave my talk to the flagpole. I then walked around the playground giving it over and over. At one point, a dad showed up with his kid. When I finished that run through the talk, I sheepishly explained that I had a big talk on Saturday and was practicing as much as I could. Fortunately, he acted like it was totally normal for someone to be standing at the park giving a talk about basic research to playground equipment.”
Better to work the kinks out in front of a flagpole instead of a news camera, she’d say.
Duffy, a faculty member in EEB who also participated in last year’s scicomm teach-out, says, “I think one mistake scientists make when trying to communicate is not trying in the first place, perhaps assuming that their work is too complex to relate to public audiences.
“The flip side of this is true, too,” she adds. “Non-scientists assuming that they shouldn’t engage in a conversation because they won’t be able to understand.”
For Abby Lamb, a Ph.D. student in LSA’s Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB), the chance to connect with people is worth too much to pass up over anxiety about getting things wrong. “There’s a payoff,” she says. “When I feel like a conversation about science is going well, it is far more exciting than any other topic for me. I’m like, ‘Yes! I’ve nailed it!’”
McKay says, “When another individual looks you in the eye and is excited by what you’re talking about, it’s super powerful, as a primate and social animal, to have that happen.”
Dus agrees. “For me with scicomm, it’s about connecting and building bridges. Rather than passing on expertise or giving facts, it’s more about putting myself out there as a human.”
Communication strengthens a community. Success in scicomm, and in communication generally, expands the posse of people who care about science. Growth happens with two-way exchanges and engagement far more than it does with one-way transmission. Successful connections find common ground for constructive discussion, rather than a dissatisfying impasse between stubborn beliefs.
Some scientists pine for this kind of two-way communication. “When it works, I feel like I’m not alone anymore,” Dus says.
“Usually, when you’re studying something, only 20 people and two other labs will read your paper and know all the details,” she continues. “Even though it’s a big community, science is very isolating, in a way. I think it’s important to let people in—to part the curtains of our world in the lab and have people take a peek.
“When you get to share something, it doesn’t feel so lonely. You feel like you’re part of a community that’s getting larger.”
When Abby Lamb hits her mark, “the person has follow-up questions. They actually seem to be leaning in and finding corollaries to their life,” she says. “It’s clear that the conversation doesn’t become a monologue.”
And the best sign of success: The conversation recruits more people, whose ears have perked up and who want to be in on the discussion, too.
“I don’t think I appreciated the reach and the audience that it would have,” Trisha Wittkopp admits about the How to Science podcast episode that she recorded with Dus.
In that episode, the first in the series, MCDB and EEB Professor Wittkopp mentions that her lab celebrates research accomplishments by sharing donuts. Bigger accomplishments, they celebrate with champagne. Soon after we posted the episode, researchers overseas tweeted about how they’ve adopted the now famous tradition of the “Donut Result.” A thread of messages followed, in a debate over whether it’s even possible to find good donuts in Portugal.
“That took me aback a little bit,” says Wittkopp.
“Anytime you’re interacting with someone around a shared point of joy, it’s a good feeling,” she says.
All four scientists lean toward each other in agreement. They’ve settled into their seats enough that they’ve forgotten they’re in a studio. This means I need to stay vigilant about the volume; I’d rather work with the dials than interrupt their conversation to move a squeaky boom arm closer to their nose. Their discussion has strayed from scripted questions, their thoughts sliding into the conversation like ingredients folding into batter.
And then all at once, our hour around the microphones is up. The scientists in the studio turn in surprise when I reluctantly clear my throat in their headphones to let them know. We need to make way quickly for a radio show that’s coming in to broadcast live in a few minutes. The next folks are milling around in the lobby, waiting patiently for their chance to set up in the studio.
We carve out our last bit of time to rehash what each scientist aimed to get out of their experience on the podcast. Did they have something in mind that they wanted to be sure to communicate? A certain tone they wanted to get across? What were their personal goals?
“I really want people to get to know scientists,” says Dus, “and learn how to science.”
McKay likes the chance to experiment with podcasting—a completely different mode of communication than his familiar channels.
Lamb admits in her episode of the podcast that she often thinks about getting more involved in scicomm so she can help put people at ease about complex and even controversial concepts. “I’d like to find a way to share with people without making them feel threatened or pushed,” she says.
Wittkopp speaks up just before we leave the studio. “My hope, more than my goal,” she says, “is that by sharing my experiences, I may inspire someone, or make science seem more accessible to someone who might not have realized it was possible for them.
“The goal is to have a positive impact on others.”