2011-07-25 07:28:41How to Talk to Real People
John Hartz
John Hartz

How to Talk to Real People, NY Times, July 22, 2011

Recognizing that scientists can be really, really hard to understand, Emory last semester introduced “Communicating Science” to teach grad students to write for and talk to laypeople. Students create presentations, blog and compose “elevator speeches” addressing various scenarios (see below).

Pat Marsteller, a biologist, developed the course and co-teaches it with two chemists, which she says is good because most of the 23 students last term were chemists, who apparently speak a dialect. Most were also “voluntolds,” Dr. Marsteller says. “They were told by their Ph.D. adviser to take the course.” She had her work cut out for her. “The first day somebody said, ‘Why should I want to talk to anybody who doesn’t understand carbon.’ ”

A chemistry student in “Communicating Science” explains herself … 

To peers at an American Chemical Society meeting

“Using laser-induced temperature jump techniques I focus on elucidating the kinetics and mechanism of dihydrofolate reductase as a model system to better understand how enzymes work.”

To biologists and mathematicians at an American Association on Advancement of Science meeting

“By enhancing our understanding of enzymes we hope to advance many fields — enzyme design, drug discovery and chemical synthesis.”

To neighbors

“With this model we will be able to design, optimize and control enzymes to help us perform reactions more cleanly, develop new materials, and enhance our abilities to produce everyday products.”

To third graders

“Inside the bodies of every living thing, including you and me, are tiny little machines called enzymes that do a variety of things. They help break down our food, fight diseases, and help our bodies grow. We aren't completely sure how enzymes work, but I am trying to understand them so that one day we can make enzymes to do whatever we want them to do.”


2011-07-25 08:41:47


Yes, at each stage of greater generality, more effort is needed to:

- provide context; and

- simplify the language.

On the second point, the chat with the neighbors seems to need more effort.


On a related note, speaking of graduate-student naivité, I recall overhearing decades ago some electrical engineering students talking about how they were told their post-interview job-salary offers were calculated. One element mentioned was "writing ability". One or two of them expressed surprise as to why that would be a factor at all. It took me a minute or two to realize that this surprise was honest: They actually had no idea that it was important to be able to explain something to someone.