We have all been there. In the middle of cutting the Christmas ham, the uncle to your right seizes his opportunity to ask the question that you would have preferred to avoid for one night. “So tell me, how is your PhD project going?”
Your mind racing, you are trying to think of how to best answer this question. While your family members are enjoying their roasted potatoes and refilling their glasses, you are sweating above your ham, internally debating which tone to use, and how much detail to go into.
Of course, it is nice when someone shows interest in your research. Of course, you are used to discussing your science in your daily life, whether it is while grabbing coffee, in a lab meeting or at a scientific conference. But it can be actually quite hard to communicate what you do in the lab to a non-scientist instead of a scientist, let alone someone who cares about you, as your family members assumably do.
But fret no more, help is on your way. Here is the Christmas Guide to Science Communication… to your family.
Easy as pie
Firstly, keep it simple when explaining the content of your project as well as the language you use. This is not the time to name drop all your fancy methods and scientific terms, you can save that for trying to impress another scientist with your research. For lay people who haven’t been brainwashed for years in your specific research field, scientific jargon might be so bewildering that you lose their attention before finishing your first sentence.
Even simple concepts can be confusing if they have a different general meaning, which can lead to quite funny misconceptions: although most people will know that proteins are essential parts of our nutrition, it might be less known that they are also essential components inside every cell. Even more confusingly, they can do and look like everything and anything, from antibodies to fibers to uphold cell structure to enzymes, as a professor in Chemistry tried to explain during the Nobel Banquet last Monday. Even worse, the Dutch word for protein is “eiwit”, while the same word is also used for egg white, making this concept even harder to explain in my native language.
A solution is to come up with analogies that explain your concept in a simple way. You can describe the two strands of DNA as a zipper, your enzyme and substrate interacting as a lock and key, you name it! Get creative and use whatever is on your Christmas dinner table to illustrate your point.
The devil is in the details
PhD students often go through the same process: you start with a thoroughly thought-out research plan, only to find out after a while that plans sometimes are ehm, just plans. Welcome to research, where not all your experiments will work and not all your hypotheses can be easily tested!
Try to not be too detailed when talking about your current project, as plans are likely to change. Unless you want to update your family every year with a completely different story, while they in turn have to update everyone whom they proudly told about your scientific endeavors. Stick to explaining one detail at the time, instead of going through your entire thesis: that can wait until your thesis defense.
It’s a matter of great importance
If you have succeeded in describing what your life’s work is about, this might be followed by the question “but why is this important?” Don’t let the fact that they are questioning the merits of your research at all discourage you: your family is just checking if they should anticipate having a future Nobel Prize winner in their midst. If you want to make your message stick, make it important to the person you talk to by finding out what matters to them and relating to that.
And actually, it is important for you to have an answer to this question anyway: knowing what drives you as a scientist will help motivate you to tackle your next experiment and finish your work.
Time is of the essence
Speaking of finishing, unless you are one of those rare PhD project management superheroes, skip mentioning too many deadlines when describing your future research plans. If you do want your grandmother to remind you every time that you were supposed to have finished your project two years ago, well, just go ahead and write those dates in her agenda already.
A student forever
And finally, perhaps the most traumatic question: “Are you still a student?” And yes, you are “still” a student, just own up to it! Let’s face it, things could be worse: as a PhD student in Stockholm, you get 1) an education 2) student discounts and 3) can rent apartments through SSSB, while you also get a salary, can save for your retirement and have the right to health care and parental leave. In a way, it can be the best of both worlds!
So, the next time your aunt nudges you to tell her what you actually are doing, just see it as an opportunity to develop your science communication skills. While this particular activity is perhaps not creditable on your CV, being able to explain what you do at different levels to different people is an essential skill for any scientist.. so why not start practicing at the Christmas dinner?