I tend to get in trouble by our lab safety officer once every two weeks for not wearing a lab coat. I always wear one when working with some dangerous or caustic chemicals, but most of my time spent in a molecular biology lab isn’t hazardous to my health. The main reason that I don’t like to wear a lab coat when it’s not necessary is maybe an unusual one: I don’t want to look like a scientist. Even as a researcher who’s been working in a lab for the past 8 years, I don’t want to fit the stereotype of what a scientist looks like or acts like. But what is the stereotype of a scientist? How do they look and, most importantly, how do they act?
During this summer of lab work, writing, and tweeting, I’ve also been thinking about the ‘big gap’ in science, the gap between what the public thinks of what we do versus our actual research. PhD comics author Jorge Cham does a great job talking about this gap in his TEDxUCLA talk. Cham gives an example of good science communication in a collaborative project to develop a cartoon and video about the Higgs Boson. He makes note that this approach to sharing science took a lot of initiative from the scientists themselves, and it didn’t follow the traditional way of how science is shared with the broader community. Cham also comments on how shows like Big Bang theory portray researchers as eccentric and socially inept, which paints an inaccurate picture of scientists and can make the job seem unattractive to young students who don’t consider themselves geniuses or ‘nerds.’ While I do enjoy Sheldon’s banter on Big Bang Theory (because we all know someone like Sheldon in our group of colleagues or friends), I wonder if there’s a better way to talk about who scientists are and what they do.
These wonderings led me to buy the children’s book, Rebel scientists, last week from Amazon. Rebels play a prominent role in modern-day storytelling: whether it’s Star Wars, Hunger Games, Braveheart, the Matrix, or the French and American revolutions, we all love to cheer for the rebels and the underdogs, be they real or fictional. But can scientists really be a part of this adjective?
Dan Green’s book was one of the winners of the Royal Society’s Young People’s Book Prize for this year. The illustrations, done by David Lyttleton, are a real treat for the eyes and help to focus the storytelling on the scientists themselves and how their work fits into the picture of our understanding of the universe.
The book starts off with the timely question of “What is this thing called science?” and Dan describes it in four parts: curiosity, disagreement, discovery, and a long journey. Scientists are the ones who are curious about how the world around them works. They go against the consensus and the status quo when need be. They know that the world has a lot of mysteries that lie ahead and are driven by asking the why and how of everything and anything. Each science subject is presented as a separate chapter called “The story of ____”, with topics including the solar system, the atom, light, the elements, and genetics. Within each story, Dan starts with the early earliest thinkers and their ideas about how the world works, following through to what we know and are working on in science today. The book depicts the scientific exploration using a diagram of a road which connects discoveries together, while also provides road signs that the reader can follow to link to relevant material in other fields. The road even has the occasional dead end at an explanation of an idea that didn’t quite pan out. While the book is meant for a slightly older reader, probably for students ages 10-14, I’m amazed with the breadth of topics that are covered-and even complex subjects like quantum physics that I even had to re-read a couple of times to get the gist of the story. Below you can find a couple photos from inside the pages so you can get a sense of how the story of science and scientists are told by Dan:
I like how the book describes the Galileo’s and Einstein’s of our world: instead of calling them all geniuses or describing them as hyper-intelligent, the famous thinkers of our world are described with a wider breadth of words. ‘Rock star’, ‘radical’, rabble-rousers’, ‘sharp suited’, and ‘mavericks’ are just a few of the adjectives used. There are stories of disagreements between the biggest minds in science and how they came to a consensus about how the world works. There are stories of researchers going against the grain to pursue their ideas and delve into the mysteries that the rest of the world wasn’t able to see. At the end of the book, you can feel like the moniker of a ‘rebel scientist’ isn’t that far from the truth.
Reading this book also got me thinking about the other things that scientists do and that they are that might not come up at first though, since the thought of a 'rebel scientist' also wasn't the first to spring to mind. So what, exactly, do scientists do?
We get things wrong, and that’s OK. There was more than one road in the Rebel Scientists book that lead to a dead end. But it wasn’t mentioned as a bad thing or that the person who thought the idea was stupid, it’s just a part of the process of science. Modern day science is rife with failures, experiments that go wrong, and ideas that lead to dead ends. It doesn’t mean we’re doing our job wrong, but it may not come to mind to non-scientists that as scientists we might not actually know everything. As Jorge Cham said in his talk, 95% of what makes up the universe is unknown…our world is complex and we have a lot more work to do!
We are diverse, but we can do better going forward. A majority of scientists that feature prominently in history are men from Europe and North America. Some women do make an appearance, as well as a few Arabian scientists, but historically the science community hasn’t been diverse. The modern landscape is more inclusive, but we can still do better. What steps can we take in the future to ensure that everyone has the chance to contribute to the scientific community?
Our job is to challenge the status quo. While scientists might be interpreted as know-it-alls or geniuses who can memorize textbooks and equations, a scientist cannot succeed simply by rout memorization of existing knowledge. Scientists have to be rebels that go against the grain, because that’s how we learn, uncover, and discover. To succeed in science, you have to do the unexpected, and being an elite know-it-all will only hold you back from uncovering the secrets that the universe has hidden from plain view. As Einstein said (and you can read more about him on Page 72 of Rebel Scientists), “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
We do our best when we work as a team and not against each other. There are a lot of dramatic rivals highlighted in Rebel Scientists, and those of us that work in a lab will know of a few other ‘rivals’ of our advisors, collaborators, and colleagues. But what I like about this book is how it highlights the ideas that were put forth not by competing groups but by scientists working together to put the pieces of a puzzle into a single, clear picture. It’s tempting to want to blaze our own trail to fame and glory, so this book is a nice reminder that if the goal is the search for truth and understanding about the universe, working alongside others is better than working in opposition.
Our world is an exciting, terrifying, and unimaginably big place. Figuring out how and why it works the way it does takes brave, enthusiastic, and rebellious minds. If people can rally behind the rebels of the science world as they do for Luke Skywalker or Katniss Everdeen, then Rebel Science will have succeeded in its mission. I hope to see more authors like Dan Green who are working to change the story of science and scientists into something more accurate and more engaging. May the force be with us and the odds ever in our favor!
We’re once again visiting our ‘Heroes of Science’ series with a portrait of the great chemist and electrical scientist Michael Faraday. I wanted to delve back into this series (you can read the previous posts on Galileo and Marie Curie in our archives) while also touching on a topic that’s come to mind after the recent fall-out of the Brexit vote. In the flurry of news articles coming out after the vote last month, there has been a lot of material in regards to the impact on science. This material has also brought to attention the notion that scientists are seen as a group of elitist experts, out of touch with the common people.
As it turns out, that sentiment is not entirely misplaced: in the UK, only 15% of scientists come from a working-class family background, and there are lower rates of progression from bachelor’s to PhD-level studies for students in the UK who attend a state high school or come from a working-class family. In the US, an undergraduate from a working-class family is six times less likely to study at an elite university than their more privileged peers, and numerous cultural and financial difficulties will also stand in the way for those who want to break into professional science. But there are examples of students from working class families breaking through and becoming successful science, and one of them is the focus of this week’s Heroes of Science series: Michael Faraday.
Our coverage of Faraday’s life and is not meant to be an over-arching review but rather a glimpse into his life and why we consider him a hero of science. All our information comes from these websites and resources, and there’s plenty more about his life for those who are interested in delving deeper.
Faraday was born in 1791, his father was a blacksmith and his mother a former maidservant. He and his three brothers lived close to the poverty line, and Faraday was only able to attend school until he was 13 years old. After finishing a very basic level of education, Faraday got an apprenticeship as a book binder in a bookshop. During his 7 years at the shop, he made a meager salary but was able to pass his time reading the books that he bound. He greatly enjoyed science books, especially chemistry and electricity, and found himself coming back time and time again to the Encyclopedia Britannia as well as Conversations on Chemistry, the latter of which was a 600 page book about chemistry written for non-scientists. Even though he had a small salary, his interest in science led him to spending part of his wages on chemistry lab equipment so he could verify first-hand what the books were describing.
Towards the end of his time as a bookbinding apprentice, Faraday attended a lecture on chemistry at the Royal Institution, thanks in no small part to his blacksmith brother who gave him a schilling so he could attend the lecture. Faraday was enthralled by the lectures, and thanks to a friendly bookshop patron, the musician William Dance, Faraday was able to get tickets to see more lectures from other famous English chemists at the Royal Institution and the Royal Society. One of the lectures that most impressed Faraday was by Sir Humphry Davy, a Cornish chemist who Faraday was able to watch perform some experiments at his lecture first-hand. To show his appreciation for Davy’s work, Faraday collected notes from the lecture in a 300-page bound book and sent it to Davy as a gift. Davy was impressed by the thorough note-taking and after a lab accident that made it difficult for Davy to write, he offered to bring Faraday to the Royal Institution as his personal note-taker. Another turn of events ended with Faraday gaining a job as a lab assistant, when one technician was fired due to misconduct which had caused a separate accident. In 1813 and at the age of 21, Faraday found himself working at the very place that he had saved up his schillings just to visit.
But while Faraday was enthusiastic about his work, he was made to feel set apart due to his lower background as a blacksmith’s son. While touring the continent with Davy soon after being hired, Davy was not treated as an equal in the group. Davy’s wife made Faraday travel outside the main coach and eat with the servants. He thought about quitting science as he went through this two-year tour of misery and mistreatment, but thanks to his time spent around science and getting new ideas from the scientists he met, he decided to persevere.
Faraday’s achievements in the lab are numerous: in chemistry, he is credited with discovering benzene and working on a better understanding of the properties of chlorine and carbon. Through his early work on gas diffusion, he discovered that some gases were able to be liquefied in the lab, including chlorine. He even invented an early form of the Bunsen burner, a piece of equipment you’ll see in labs to this day as a safe tool for having benchtop heat and flame. Faraday was even considered an early founder of the concept of nanomaterials, after seeing that gold colloids had vastly different properties when compared to their bulk metal material. As nanoscience is a driving force in modern chemistry and toxicology to this day, Faraday has shown himself to be a truly enterprising and forward-thinking scientist.
Faraday is better known for his work on electricity and magnetism. In 1820, Danish scientist Oersted discovered electromagnetism, demonstrating that the intrinsic energy underlying both electricity and magnetism is two sides of the same coin. Faraday was able to construct devices to perform induction, which is the transfer electromagnetic energy from one object to another. With induction, you can apply an electric current and create a magnetic field and likewise create an electric current by moving a conductor through a magnetic field. He was able to create steady-state currents and even designed the first-ever generator. His work formed the basis of studies on electromagnetic fields in physics for years to come, and his early designs are still on display at the Royal Institution. Faraday was also involved in work which linked the concepts in chemistry and electricity together, and is credited with discovering the laws of electrolysis as well as popularizing terms like electrode and ion.
But Faraday wasn’t content on keeping his work to himself: he was also a fervent scientific communicator. At the age of 24 he gave his first lecture and published his first academic paper. While living and working at the Royal Institution, he was elected to the Royal Society at the young age of 32 and became a Fullerian Professor of Chemistry at the age of 41. He was known as one of the best lecturers of his time and was especially known for his Christmas lectures, a forum for public presentations on science. He described the method giving a lecture as the following: "A flame should be lighted at the commencement and kept alive with unremitting splendour to the end." Faraday greatly enjoyed doing these lectures, complete with lab demonstrations, and considered it a vital part of the work of a scientist to educate the public. He was also a strong advocate against pseudo-science and gave lectures to promote the importance of public education. Outside of his time as a scientist and lecturer, Faraday also collaborated on projects with the British government, including coal mine investigations, constructing light houses, and protecting ships from corrosion. He was even involved in early work on environmental pollution prevention. He did all of this without any formal education, apart from his honorary doctorate from Oxford.
So what can we take from Faraday’s story? Despite coming from a modest background, Faraday let his passions lead him, both in the effort he spent in learning on his own and in taking ideas and concepts in new, uncharted directions. He ended up with his career thanks to a good deal of hard work and study, as well as a bit of luck and help from friends and family. Even when meeting with adversity in how he was treated as a lower-class member of society, he kept persevering and stayed focused on the science that was important to him. He was also a great science communicator and believed heartily in teaching science to everyone, always remembering where he came from and the importance of science lectures in his own adolescence. He will certainly continue to be remembered as one of the great scientists of the 19th century.
But Faraday’s story is potentially a unique one, and it’s not very easy to find similar stories in the realm of modern science. Is science doomed to be a primarily elitist organization, or is there a way to bring other working class students into the fold? While current legislation in the UK and the US is working to develop federal programs to bridge the gap between undergraduate and PhD-level studies for students of working class families, students outside of the ‘normal’ elite groups do have certain advantages:
“The most powerful advantage for students from working-class backgrounds is the resilience and “enormous fortitude” they have already demonstrated in getting where they are." (Quote from 'Breaking the Class Ceiling')
Faraday is certainly a testament to this, and through his inspiring story we hope to see more similarly-minded students break through their current place in the world in order to make their mark on the scientific community.
A common theme in this blog is science communication: whether it’s advice on how to talk about your research at holiday get-togethers or how you can present your research findings to a scientific audience, I certainly enjoy writing about how to communicate, and I’m not the only blogger who does. But as the old saying goes, “those who can’t do, teach,” and perhaps I’ve been guilty of not following my own advice, even advice from my own blog posts.
At family get-togethers I tend to be the wallflower that greatly enjoys hearing about what my family is up to but the one who hates talking for more than a minute or two about what I’m up to apart from “Oh, you know, busy in the lab.” When meeting new people, scientists or not, I tend to give the same 5-second reply of “I’m a biologist” or “I do research” and move on to the next question or topic as quickly as possible. I feel guilty for this, realizing that I’m not doing as I preach in my blog, but in the moment of meeting someone or talking to my aunts and uncles about my work, I panic and resort to the easiest and shortest way out of the topic.
Lately, I’ve been thinking of how to become a better doer as well as a teacher in the realm of science communication. This has been spurred by being involved with outreach activities through my University, taking public engagement training courses, and, most recently, reading ‘Modern Poisons’ and seeing how my undergrad professor Dr. Kolok talks about toxicology. This week’s post is an attempt to layout my thoughts from the past few weeks on how to talk about my research in a way that will strike a chord with more people than just my fellow toxicologists, using an analogy that connects my research to another hobby of mine: public transportation systems.
There are a lot of joys you can experience while travelling: seeing new cultures, meeting new people, trying new foods, and feeling the vibe of a new city. For me, there’s yet another joy of travelling: maps. That excitement of getting a city guide that lists all of the key sightseeing points, but what’s even more exciting for me are the big underground railway and mass transit maps, displaying all the colorful connections throughout the city, the stops you can explore, and the numerous neighborhoods that are all within your reach.
The same excitement I get while looking over a new city’s mass transit map is the same type of excitement I got when first learning about molecular biology. I remember my fascination while sitting in the front row (yes, I was that person) of junior year molecular biology class at my alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, taught by the Biology department Chair and enthusiastic instructor Dr. Tapprich. I was mesmerized by the intricacies of the biochemical pathways, how feedback loops between one enzyme to another in the same pathway kept every process related to metabolism under tight control, and how a system as complex as a human body could be interconnected through these pathways that are invisible to the naked eye. Perhaps my fascination between the two seemingly unrelated topics, mass transit and molecular biology, is due to their similarities. Public transportation connects a city of diverse neighborhoods and helps it function on a daily basis by moving people around, similar to how the intricately linked biochemical pathways control everything from our metabolism, immune system responses, organ function, and, in general, keep us functioning on a daily (and lifelong) basis.
But as we know in the real world of public transportation, a daily commute doesn’t always run smoothly. Somewhere along the line, a signal is down, a train gets backed up, or a train car has too many passengers getting on and off and ends up late to its next destination. A small snag can sometimes fix itself, maybe a late train makes up some time at the next stop, or a signal is fixed in a hurry. But when things don’t get fixed or when broken signals are combined with other malfunctions, the problems can grow even worse, causing delays that spill over and affect other lines, delays that seem to make the whole city come to a standstill. This is especially true in mega cities like London (see tube map below), a huge amalgam of interconnected lines, zones, and the inevitable delays on a regular basis, all while moving some 8.5 million people across the city.
This is where toxicology comes into my transportation analogy: if molecular biology and biochemistry are the study of the lines and stops that interconnect a city, toxicology is the study of what a transit system can do when things go wrong and what happens when things can’t be fixed quickly enough to keep the city from devolving into disorder, chaos, and in extreme circumstances, complete shut-down.
But while you can study a map of the London underground on your own and fairly easily figure out how to get from Amersham to Oxford Circus, toxicologists learn more about the system by breaking it down into pieces, seeing how different train lines intersect, and seeing what happens in zone 6 when a train breaks down in zone 2. You’ll learn a lot in Dr. Kolok’s book about pesticides, which generally kill pests by over-stimulating an enzyme involved in transmitting neural signals. This would be like a broken signal at Ravenscourt Park which results in trains leaving the station every 30 seconds instead of every 5 minutes. At some point the trains will start colliding with one another, which is an transit-ified simplification of what happens in the neurological system after pesticide exposure: too many neural signal firings means muscles won’t be able relax, with a constant firing eventually resulting in a complete failure of the system.
For my PhD project, I worked with endocrine disrupting chemicals. The endocrine system is in charge of quite a few important functions in our body, but the most notorious are their control of sex hormones such as testosterone and estrogen. Chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system can create cross-overs and confusions in regards to hormone levels and normal development. Think about if you booked tickets to go to South Ealing but ended up arriving at Goldhawk Road instead. In my dissertation I studied a population of fish exposed to chemicals downstream from a paper mill. In this group of fish, the females had a growth on one of their fins that normally males only have-think of a situation where you happen upon a group of women living in a remote area who all have thick moustaches and beards.
Using the publication transportation as a model for toxicology, you can start to imagine the connections between different body systems as well as how things can go wrong at any point along the map. Toxicologists need to understand what happens at the stations, the rail lines, and all the interconnections between places and routes in order to address questions like why a signal failure in Kings Cross can delay trains in West Brompton. In general, toxicologists study very specific trends: what happens when this enzyme doesn’t work or works too well, why a synthetic chemical can cause endocrine disruption, etc. It’s also a way that we classify toxic chemicals based on what lines they impact the most, what stations they hit, or how easy they are to clean up afterwards.
But what if the problem wasn’t at a specific line or station? How would you study the system if instead of something specific like a signal failure, there was an earthquake? In theory, just about any part of the system could be damaged, ranging from a minor delay due to a small magnitude quake or catastrophic destruction in the event of a large magnitude event. But as countries who live in earthquake-ridden locations know best, there are generally particular areas that get hit the most that can be reinforced to withstand a full-blown earthquake, weak points in a city’s infrastructure that tend to feel the brunt of even a small earthquake more so than others. But how do you find out what these weak points are without waiting to see what a big, potentially damaging earthquake can do firsthand?
The earthquake within this ‘toxicology in transit’ model is called narcosis, and it’s what I’ve been studying for the past 2 and a half years of my post-doc. Narcosis as a field of toxicology has been around for a while, but exactly how narcosis works (i.e. what stations and lines get hit the worst during an earthquake) is still uncertain. We know that narcotic compounds target biological membranes, the master gatekeepers and regulators of what goes in and out of a cell. Cell membranes are like the ticket gates at the station entrance: you can only get in (or out) if you have the right ticket. Membranes have to be good at controlling what is allowed in and out to make sure your cells have the right balance of ions and proteins so the cell can keep running normally. Narcotics break down this barrier and change the properties of the cell membrane, effectively letting anyone in (and out) instead of keeping things tightly regulated.
But the problem is that we don’t know exactly what happens when membranes go wild. Think back to the transit example with an earthquake: Do all the train signals stop working, or just a select or key few? Are there delays on all the lines, or are there a few key lines that once they get out of whack cause the whole city to be in disarray? While my project is still ongoing, it looks like it’s the latter that can explain what we see in narcosis. Narcotic chemicals tend to impact neurological signaling, and in my project we’ve found that biochemical pathways related to neuronal function tend to be more impacted than others. While the narcosis earthquake is still a random event in that any membrane in a cell can be impacted, the ones related to sensation and body movement tend to get hit more than others. This allows us to take a closer look at the stations and rail lines impacted by an earthquake, and to better understand more precisely how narcosis happens and why.
So that’s my post-doc career in a nutshell: studying cellular earthquakes and transitioning my love of travel maps into a career in science. While I came up with the idea on a bit of a whim, I’ve found that getting started with actually putting thoughts into words and concrete ideas is the hardest step, and perhaps also the scariest: you feel like you’ll get something wrong, or that you won’t be able to write something as clear as you see it in your head, or that you’ll go through all the trouble and still have no one who understands it. My only advice here from the ‘teacher’ side is to just give it a try. If something doesn’t come out perfectly, you can always try again and learn from what did and didn’t work the first time around.
During the rest of the summer I’ll continue putting my science communication skills into the ‘doing’ stage and will also have some additional posts on science communication approaches and techniques. Next week we’ll revisit our Heroes of Science series, and we also look forward to some upcoming collaborations with the Ecotox blog and the EuroScientists blog. Until next week, we wish you a summer of delay-free commutes (if there is such a thing!).
We’ve talked in previous posts about many of the additional jobs required of scientists besides research. Science communication is at the top of the list, and the importance of strong communication skills for scientists has become clearer now than ever before. In some of our previous posts, we’ve focused on ways you can communicate your science when asked the dreaded question of ‘So, how’s research?’ at a get-together with family or friends or how you can adopt the use of a narrative approach to set up your scientific story. It’s also important for us to think beyond our own research and consider sharing the concepts, findings, and ideas of an entire field of study. Are there ways that we can better communicate the wider scope of our scientific research to an even broader audience?
At the SETAC meeting last autumn in Salt Lake City, I had a chance to catch up with my undergrad thesis advisor Dr. Alan Kolok, who set out to do just that for toxicology. I spoke with him over the phone this winter about his project of writing Modern Poisons and his perspectives on undertaking the endeavor of translating toxicology for a lay audience. I also had a chance to read the newly-minted e-book version this spring, which you can pick up on Amazon or directly from the Island Press website.
You might find the book a surprisingly short read, something you can get through in a week or so of easy reading, and there’s a reason for that. Kolok was initially inspired by the paperback Why big fierce animals are rare, a book written by the late Paul Colinvaix, an ecology professor who worked at The Ohio State University and later at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. The book is dense in basic ecology but uses short, 5-minute chapters to get the message across. Kolok was inspired by the book as an undergraduate student and the way in which these complex concepts in ecology could be conveyed in short, easy-to-read sections for a broad audience. Kolok wanted to do something similar for the field of toxicology: a book that could be read by anyone, from accountant to zoologist, and a book that would enable them to have a better understanding of the concepts and common misconceptions within toxicology.
As researchers we work primarily in a single field and with the occasional jaunt into interdisciplinary territory. It’s easy to forget how specialized we are even compared to scientists working in other fields, even ones that might seem similar at first. Kolok was initially surprised by comments on a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation about why PCBS aren’t metabolized but PAHs are and why EDCs impact fish differently than humans. To the toxicologist, these concepts (and acronyms) seem like common knowledge, but for someone who’s an epidemiologist or an electrophysiologist won’t understand concepts like biotransformation as much as a toxicologist will. After seeing these comments, Kolok realized that even for a field as large as toxicology, there was really only one major textbook dedicated to the principles of the field. While this is a great textbook, it’s not exactly pocket-sized, and certainly not a light read or for those who simply want to pique their interest on the topic.
Three years ago, Kolok set out to write Modern Poisons as a short and easy-to-digest book on the basics of toxicology. While the book is currently available as an undergraduate textbook, it was initially meant to be a short book for lay readers, including advanced high school students, who are interested in toxicology. In order to reach this broad audience, Kolok’s approach was to use the power of metaphors. Kolok is a firm believer of the value of anecdotes as a way of explaining complex concepts to people who don’t come from a scientific background. This approach is used to tackle topics ranging from the geographical distribution of pollutants to emerging questions on topics including nanomaterials and personal care products. This approach enables readers to understand the gist of the problem but leaves the in-depth details for another story.
What became more of a struggle for Kolok during the writing process was achieving the balance between sufficient complexity with understandability. In the past 17 years of teaching toxicology for senior undergraduates at UNO, Kolok has found that a good portion of the course ended up being the study of biochemical pathways. While this isn’t the core of toxicology per se, it was still something that all students needed to understand so that concepts such as enzyme induction by dioxins and pesticides binding to the acetylcholine receptor could be better understood. The book subsequently follows in parallel to how Kolok teaches, not only in the specifics of the enzymes and pathways discussed but in general in the sense of how the system works as a whole and how different pieces can end up in disarray during a chemical onslaught.
Kolok used Modern Poisons as a textbook in his toxicology course last autumn, where he provided the book as an overview and then used the course to go into greater details. While this required Kolok to re-think his course and revamp his presentation style, he was also able to get feedback on the book before it went to publication. His students really enjoyed the book and were able to read each chapter and make specific comments on what worked and what didn’t. After four years of droll textbooks for classes, Kolok’s senior-level toxicology course enjoyed a book with a more conversational and informal tone and approach, and Kolok plans to use Modern Poisons again in the upcoming semester.
While the book did take three years to write, it wasn’t evenly spread over all 20 chapters. Kolok found that some ideas or concepts came easier and were written faster, while for others he needed to either think about how to go into detail while still being clear, and other concepts required him to go back to the literature. The amount of time spent during that year also varied, as Kolok was still teaching and doing research, but on some occasions spent nearly 20 hours a week at writing. Thanks to a quarterly series of articles he had written for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Kolok did have some starting material from 16 lay person articles of around 800 words, each focused on a topic within toxicology.
Even with some starting material, however, the process was still not always an easy one. “When you’re writing a review paper, your input is scientific material and your output is more scientific material. It’s harder when you’re taking scientific materials and translating them into something else. You have to read a lot in order to understand and then translate without losing the complexity,” Kolok commented. Kolok admitted that he wasn’t always the most efficient at this: some concepts ended up ‘translating’ rather easily but others were more difficult, and some ideas and chapters had to be completely redone. Kolok reinforced the need for good self-critique during the writing process and admitting when you need to restart something completely. While this was a challenge throughout the writing process, Kolok admits that “When you feel like you finally got it right, it’s really satisfying.”
While the first edition of the book is done and in print (or e-book, if you prefer a digital format), Kolok is already thinking about what the next version will look like, but after some time off from book writing, since Kolok emphasized that part of being productive also involves taking a break now and again. The next edition is likely to include some figures and a few changes in sections that Kolok feel could be improved, especially as new research comes out and new stories become prominent in the news, and to go into more detail on certain topics that could only be covered broadly in the first iteration.
“I’d never thought of myself as a writer until finishing this book,” Kolok remarked, and said that by writing this book he activated a more creative part of his brain than normal science writing. “This type of writing feels like a creative challenge compared to scientific writing. I got to expand my creativity and the horizon of my writing, I got to use more creative words and tell short stories instead of journal articles.” Kolok even went so far as to say that writing more creatively felt like learning a new lab technique, and that while in research and as a professor he was and is still writing, he now has a new perspective on it. Kolok even said that the amount of scientific writing he’s done has increased, and he’s now more motivated to write and finish papers, in addition to thinking about continuing his career in writing after retiring from research as a second career.
I greatly enjoyed reading Modern Poisons, and even having background knowledge in toxicology the book didn’t feel like anything was too glossed over or watered down. One student commented that “Dr. K writes like he talks, very conversationally, and I mean that in a good way,” and I certainly agree with that sentiment. Reading this book felt like being in Kolok’s undergraduate toxicology course all over again, a reminder of why I began my PhD in toxicology in the first place: the fascination I felt while learning about what happens when good biological plans and infrastructure go awry. It also spurred my own thoughts on how I could talk about my own research better, which was one of the topics not mentioned in Kolok’s book: narcosis. I agree with Kolok that toxicology should be understood by more than toxicologists, especially since a lot of what we do impacts what chemicals we use in our homes, on our foods, and in our drugs. I’ve already passed along the book to science-oriented friends and non-science-oriented family members who have asked me time and time again to tell them about what I’m doing at work. Thanks to Dr. K, I can just send them the link to the Amazon page and avoid a lengthy discussion on biological membranes over Christmas dinner!
It’s not just toxicology that benefits from books like this: scientists are trained to become specialized in their own fields, and a person that hasn’t been in a science class since high school may have forgotten what the inside of a cell looks like or from what direction the moon rises from. While it may not be an easy endeavor to bring every research concept to the lay person, now is the time to start thinking how you can translate science into a story that people can connect and relate to. I’m thankful for Dr. Kolok’s inspiration in telling the story of toxicology for everyone, and am hopeful that more science-oriented books like this in the future will grace the bedside tables of many curious readers to come.
It’s never a good sign when your day starts with over 200 unread Whatsapp messages. Last Friday (June 24th), I woke up to news that I and my friends on the Liverpool Whatsapp group had thought would never happen: the UK had voted to leave the EU. Even after the initial whirwind round of messages sent in the early morning hours, the rest of the day was spent reading news articles and seeing the shock and disappointment from UK and European friends on Facebook and Twitter. With the flood of posts swirling around in the past few days, I wanted to take the time and think about what Brexit will mean in the context of the type of work that binds me and many of my UK and European friends together: science.
There will be numerous direct effects of leaving the EU on science here in the UK, on everything from the availability of grants, the mobility of professional researchers, and the scientific infrastructure that’s been set up within the EU. As I read these articles and numerous other ones like them, I empathize with my friends who are in the process of developing their own careers in science here. How can you manage additional uncertainties in a field where you already have to spend so much time worrying about grants, short-term contracts, and competitive jobs?
The flood of news articles and opinions continued to pour in over the weekend from experts and scientists, but after being drained of my productivity on Friday and worrying about the implications of Brexit on my own future, I took a break from reading the news this weekend. Even so, one of the article subtitles kept me pondering the rest of the weekend: ‘What has the EU ever done for us?’ This question brought me back to the Life of Brian scene, where while planning an uprising against the oppressive Roman regime, the question is brought up of what, exactly, the Romans ever did for us.
“... but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order... what have the Romans done for us?”
Romans have now come to mind a second time on our blog and for good reason. During my travels around Europe, I’ve been able to visit 16 of the other 27 EU countries, and only 9 of the 28 EU countries (still counting the UK) were never a part of the Roman Empire. In the many places I’ve visited around Europe, I’ve seen enduring remnants of Roman building projects. From the state history museum in Budapest, full of Roman artifacts found across the Hungarian plains, to the impressive and fully intact aqueduct of Segovia, and Hadrian’s Wall just a couple of hour’s drive from Liverpool, stretching across Northern England and still marking the boundary between what was Rome and what was the rest of the world.
Rome was certainly not a perfect empire, but it was one that lasted for over 300 years. This is impressive for a relatively unconnected world as compared to ours, in a time without telecommunications or any transport more rapid than the horse. Even still, Rome was connected across the vast amount of land between its borders, and people were Roman despite where they had been born, what language they spoke, or how exactly they came to be incorporated into the Empire. While I’m sure not everyone had a fantastic life under Roman rule, and there were certainly a fair share of bad emperors throughout the history of the Empire, Rome as a unified concept did mean something important. As a person living in the classical period and regardless of your income or your social status, you would have been able to see the positive impact that a road or clean water had on your life. You would have enjoyed plays in the local amphitheater or the wines and exotic foods more easily available to you and your family from across the empire. You would have felt some protection at being part of a bigger unified nation than when isolated to just your village or your tribe. Being Roman 2000 years ago would have meant being part of something powerful, something beneficial, and something enduring.
But as we already know, Rome didn’t last forever. The empire fell and the Western world left with warring neighbors, short-lived empires, and a period in history that came to be known as the Dark Ages. I don’t believe we’re headed for another dark age, but as history shows us we do need to recognize that history involves cycles of uprisings. But unlike the Dark Ages, we have countless sources of news nowadays, we can get facts and figures from reputable sources, and we can hear directly from experts in order to get a better understanding of the problem using sound logic and reason. Right?
As we discussed in our storytelling post two weeks ago people tend to rely on emotions when making decisions. With money, a family, and a future on the line, people are not always driven by logic, facts, and figures. We are driven by emotions, by stories, and by selfish needs. Unfortunately, the Leave campaign made good use emotions and fed off the enthusiasm of an uprising, bringing together a rousing rally against ‘the man’ (e.g., the EU) that’s apparently holding us back. This line of campaigning is evident from the tweets on their twitter account and you can see a few of the tweets below:
Oddly enough, there’s no equivalent @Vote_Remain Twitter account, and while there are a flurry of #Remain tweets (especially now after the vote is over), it seems that the question of ‘What did the EU ever do for us?’ wasn’t as enthusiastically addressed by the Remain campaign.
But what does this all mean for scientists? In the midst of worrying about the future of our research contracts, the prospects of losing future EU grants, and thinking our colleagues who come from every side of the world to work in the UK, we also have to recognize that in this day in age, scientists are considered ‘the man’. In a campaign that has won by fueling disregard and mistrust in ‘experts’, is it any surprise that people started to go against the recommendations of said experts?
Scientists are not considered to be of a trustworthy profession, and we come off as competent but not very warm. In a recent study conducted in the UK, one person relayed this comment on why they had no interest in science: “Snobs, know it all! Better than others just because they are intelligent, boring and thinking everyone should know what they know!”. Is it then any wonder that in an age where people are taking a stand against the status quo and ‘the man’ that this also means a stand against science?
If scientists want to stop being ‘the man’ that the rest of the world is up against, we need to think about and engage in the communication streams that people get. While most of the other respondents did have a general interest in science, many felt that scientists were hard to access. Events like science fairs and festivals look great on paper or on a resume, but many folks are limited in their ability or interest to take time from their own lives on a busy weekend to go and do such an activity. Many are engaged with science news in the media, but since the media also has the potential to get something wrong or to over-sensationalize something, how can we as scientists do better to share our science? If people feel like we are hard to communicate with unless we come to them in a science fair, why should we expect them to trust us as the experts when we say to them from afar ‘if you do X then Y will happen, so you shouldn’t do X’.
Now is a good time to reflect on how we as scientists can do a better job at not being seen as ‘the man’ but as a member of this team, of the metaphorical Rome that is our world. Based on the results of this survey, it’s not that people have no interest in science or don’t see value in what we do, but that we’re not meeting people where they are, that we’re still stuck in ivory towers pondering all our expert opinions instead of meeting them face to face. We can spend our days post-Brexit worrying about our own grants and jobs, or blaming the other side for whatever happens next, but in a few years’ time the dust will settle on the UK’s exit from the EU, and we’ll still be ‘the man’. If we focus on getting people on our side by talking with them eye-to-eye and making them part of a two-way discussion, we can make sure that we narrow the gap between The People and The Experts. If we meet with and have discussions with people outside the ivory tower, if we engage in listening instead of lectures, we can make connections and we can build trust.
Regardless of the future of the EU, the UK, and everywhere in between, we as scientists still continue to have the power to make great and positive changes in our world. Just because history tends to repeat itself, it doesn’t mean we have to repeat it completely. We can learn from how to connect with people by listening to what fuels their interests and where they want to engage with us. We can change the personal of scientists from being cold-hearted and nerdy towards a more accurate depiction: we are hard-working, motivated, and we are here to make the world a better place for everyone.
Despite the turbulent times that we find ourselves in, I am encouraged by the fact that people do have an interest and are looking for information when they make decisions about their lives. And if history teaches us anything, it’s that even though Rome eventually fell, after the Dark Ages came the Renaissance. After having seen first-hand the relics of Rome spread across so many countries, I’m encouraged and hopeful that the relics of a united Europe and a united world will last well beyond our lifetimes. SPQR!
Last week I heard a great podcast news report about the way we talk about scientists and how that can inspire (or intimidate) those in the next generation and affect their desire to become scientists. In the US, we tend to talk about scientists as being geniuses, as having brilliant ideas and doing groundbreaking work that’s changed the course of our lives. But apparently that’s not a good way to motivate children to pursue science as a career path. Talking about scientists like they are super-human geniuses causes children to believe that since they aren’t geniuses, they’re not cut out for science. This is in contrast to how the stories of scientists are told in China, where the focus is on hard work. The podcast also describes a study in which kids were told stories about scientists in the context of being geniuses, in the context of personal struggle/hard work, and even in the context of having to ask colleagues for help when they were stuck. The kids who were told the ‘struggle’ stories were not only more engaged with science activities in the classroom, they even performed better on science tests.
The results of this study fascinated me throughout the week. Just by talking differently about scientists, about ourselves, we can motivate students not only to become more interested in science, but even to do better in exams. By relating how great scientists also faced challenges and persevered, children recognize the need for hard-work and determination and won’t give up if they find they are not as brilliant as Einstein. This study also got me thinking about stories as a whole. Science communication is essentially about telling a story with impact, to motivate and inspire…but as scientists, are we equipped to be able to tell these types of stories?
As an undergraduate in Environmental Studies, my formal training in writing was, well, very formal. We had a specialized course for students in the biological sciences, and if you were going to be an engineer or a banker you were in a different technical writing class. While these courses were clearly designed as an introduction to what writing would look like for the jobs we would end up in, I wonder in hindsight if this is the wrong way to go about a formalized training in how to write. Yes, as scientists we need to know how to talk about p-values, how to structure a manuscript, and how to write an abstract, but this type of knowledge seems to come as easily through practice as it does through formal, classroom-based training. What is more of a challenge is for us to figure out how to talk to people outside of science, given that we spend so much of our time since undergrad learning how to talk with ourselves. Could this be the block between science and the public: simply an issue of not knowing how to tell a story in the classic way because we’re only trained to talk to ourselves?
In contrast to being trained as a scientist, if you did your undergraduate in marketing you’d be thoroughly trained in how to tell a story, in this sense with the goal of leaving a lasting impression on someone, an impression so strong that they might even be biased towards buying the product or service you’re selling. One way that marketers do this is by using stories, and marketers do this for a reason: stories are a means to connect with emotions, and if you connect with the emotions of a person, you can create a more memorable connection. Whether it’s an ad about a horse and a dog who are best friends or a simple ‘We lived’ following a close-up of car crash wreckage, the ads with memorable content are the ones that impact our buying decisions, which are usually driven by emotion instead of logic. Another example of the impact of stories can be found in (name of teacher’s) marketing classroom. She asked each student to make a one-minute pitch for an imaginary product. Nine out of ten students presented facts and figures to make their case, but one student told a story about the product. When the audience was asked to remember things from the ten pitches, 5% could recall a specific figure or statistic, but 63% of them remembered the story.
When someone tells you a story, they are also directing your brain’s activity. If you read or listen to a story of someone running or jumping, versus just being read a list of words with no context, your brain visualizes the actions, and activates the same ‘motor planning’ brain regions that are used when you get ready to do a physical activity yourself. In comparison, the words in isolation or outside the context of a story simply activate the language processing center of a brain. Think for a moment about reading a scientific paper versus an action-adventure novel: in the novel you can empathize and represent the activity, but can you do the same thing when all you have are facts, figures, and abstract concepts?
So what do these examples from marketing and psychology mean for scientists? Early on in our careers, we’re trained to write very technically, to sound like a scientist, to talk about our work in the context of figures, error bars, statistical significance, and developing logical conclusions that fall within the bounds of our results. This is how science works: we’re presented with a hypothesis, we address that hypothesis with experiments, and we come to a conclusion about the state of the universe from those results. But at the same time, we are also human beings, as are our colleagues, our collaborators, and all the members of the public that fund our research in one way or another. Our brains are hard-wired to understand and be moved by stories, and while we’re trained to trust statistics and plots, we can still be swayed by the powerful emotions of empathy, joy, sadness, and fear.
But we can’t just tell scientists to go out there and tell stories, because science stories are not the same as the ones from marketing, literature, or art. Our stories aren’t here to entertain or to entertain or to sell a product, but are rather a means of working towards an understanding of how life, the universe, and everything in between works. It’s unfair to trivialize our hard-work using the foundations of the scientific method using sensationalism and fear-mongering, but it doesn’t mean that scientists can’t be storytellers, too.
In previous posts we’ve touched a bit on methods and approaches for writing and how you can frame your manuscript as a problem and solution approach. In the context of storytelling, you can think of your research as something akin to a mystery novel: you present some ‘case’ that needs to be solved, you describe your method for cracking the case, and present to the reader your conclusions as to who-done-it. Other options include presenting your science story with some relevant background (i.e. why the research happened) followed by the consequences of your work (why it matters). These approaches have also been formally adopted in materials developed for schools, with the aims of telling stories about scientists as a way to motivate and inspire them to get involved in science. A quote from one of this article: “Scientific storytelling, as it relates to teaching and education, should engage the audience and help them ask questions about the science: Why did this happen? What would we do next? How is this possible?" So while there is some dialogue about how to tell these stories, especially for educators, how can we as scientists, more fully embrace the power of storytelling in our own work?
Interestingly enough, if you search for ‘how to tell a story’ versus ‘how to write a scientific manuscript’, you’ll come up with very different results. This one from Forbes is a simple list of to do’s that also echoes what we’ve touched on in our Five Easy* Steps presentation posts. In contrast, the ‘scientific manuscript’ guidelines are more guidelines for structure and less for impact, for example in what order to write the introduction versus the materials and methods. These are helpful guidelines in the context of the science side, but what about the storytelling side? How can we connect storytelling to science? While there are a few websites with some pointers on how to tell stories, here are a few other considerations to keep in mind:
Don’t tell people something is important: make them believe it. Instead of telling your reader that your research is great and then give them a list of reasons why, describe for them the world in which your research sits. Paint the picture of what your field looks like and how your research fits into it. People, scientists included, will not instantly respond to being told that something is important, we need to realize for ourselves that it’s important and develop some connection to the problem. Hook your readers in with a story about what your world (of research) looks like. What are the mysteries still unsolved? What have people worked to figure out but in vain have yet to find an answer to? What will happen if nothing gets done? This isn’t about telling lies to make your work seem more important, or in foregoing facts for sensationalism, but focuses on presenting why people should care instead of just telling them to do so.
If people remember one thing, what should it be? Regardless of whether it’s a manuscript, a blog post, an email, or an oral presentation, people will forget things. Details will get lost in the numerous other details you present, they might lose attention, or you might just be giving them too much information at once. Think of what your big-picture take-home message is, and make sure that gets across. Put it in your abstract, at the end of your introduction, at the beginning of your discussion, and at the end of your conclusion. Tell your readers again and again what you want them to remember, and you’ll ensure that portion at least sticks with them.
Write what you want to read. As scientists we’ve been trained to write in a certain way-but that style is primarily focused on structure, not content. These are the sections you should include, these are how you transition from introduction to methods, etc. The structure is important and should be kept, but it’s not the only tool we can use as writers. Use the advice from writers and from advertisers in terms of crafting the story and the vocabulary you use. As long as the science is there, using approaches from other fields is a valid way of setting up your paragraphs and structuring your sentences. If you don’t like reading papers that drone on about ‘therefore, XYZ’ and ‘henceforth, ABC’, then don’t write those papers. Say what you found, what it means, and why it’s important in the context of your story, and be simple and clear about how you got to the conclusion you did.
Read stories by good writers. We’ve already touched on this recommendation in other posts, and there’s a reason we mention it again. We generate a lot of our vocabulary and the way we talk from the people around us. If you spend time with someone that says ‘like’ or ‘totally’ a lot, you’ll totally, like, pick up on it, too. The same goes for writing: if you read what good writers write, it helps you do the same. You pick up on examples of how to transition between ideas, what words or phrases are memorable, and what analogies are helpful for conveying a message. While there are examples of good writing in the scientific literature, take a break from science reading and explore some blogs, news articles, or books whose focus is a story in order to get some insights into how to tell your own.
Write something other than science. It’s hard to put into practice narrative or story-based writing if you keep writing using the same structure you’ve done before already. Try expanding your writing repertoire by penning a creative short story or a news article instead. See how it feels to write something when logic isn’t at the forefront. How do you convey a complex topic? How do you transition between complex ideas? Practice how you can connect words and ideas which aren’t driven by science and then take those lessons into your own science writing efforts.
Thankfully, we have a lot of great science storytellers to learn from. If you want to get inspired, be sure to check out the works of Carl Sagan and Steven Johnson. In the next couple of weeks we’ll be doing a book review on Modern Poisons, a lay person’s guide to toxicology, with some insights on how to write a science book for a non-scientific audience from the author (and my former undergrad honors thesis advisor) Alan Kolok.
And they communicated their science happily ever after.
A few weeks ago I attended a workshop on public engagement by Steve Cross at our University. While not knowing what to expect at first, I came back from the workshop motivated and impressed with the amount of time, energy, and infrastructure put into encouraging scientists to engage the public here in the UK. I also found myself for the first time actually thinking about what public engagement really is, thanks to the resources and exercises Steve provided in the workshop. The workshop helped me form a concrete understanding of public engagement and the steps needed to make it successful. For this week’s post, I’ll touch on some of the highlights of the workshop, provide some resources n public engagement, and hopefully inspire some of you to take on the challenge of getting involved in some engagement activities this summer.
Universities here in the UK are putting a lot of time and energy into public engagement. Not only are there diverse approaches and a large volume of activities, but there is also formally agreed-upon definitions and structures. At first it might seem a bit overblown: why do we need flow charts and 5-year institute plans when public engagement is just about talking to the public about your research. Right? As it turns out, public engagement is much more complicated than just telling people what you’re research is-at least if the goal of the interaction is to actually become involved in conversations and even collaborate with members of the public.
So what exactly is public engagement? You can find the answer to this and many other questions on the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement website, which also has a wealth of information about how you can get your own engagement activities up and running. On their ‘what is public engagement’ page, you can find the definition:
"Public engagement describes the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit."
I’ve highlighted the part of the definition that’s key to understand how to put on engaging activities and events. This is why it’s not good enough to just put your papers or your findings out there for the public to see. If you can’t hear back from them, see things from their perspective, or get ideas on what it means and where things can go next, then can you really call it engagement? Below is a simple diagram I developed based on the workshop and the definition above, showing how ideas should go back and forth during public engagement activities, and how collaboration comes only when information has been transmitted and received on both ends. Obviously you have to start somewhere in the dialogue, which is generally in transmitting your ideas to the public, but the key is to engage in such a way as to provide an opening for them to transmit back to you.
Why should we do public engagement?
During the workshop we were asked to come up with reasons for why public engagement was worthwhile. We came up with quite a long list, and you can find other answers here as well. Highlights from our list include:
Personal: Feels good to take part in these types of activities
Educational: For both parties, learning can take place whenever there is an exchange of ideas
Moral: Research uses taxpayer money so there should be an obligation to give back to the community that enabled us to do the research in the first place
Business: If it’s required or encouraged, then at some point you’ll need to do it to get grants
Academic: It’s a place to get new ideas and collaborations while increasing your personal profile
While this all sounds well and good, there are certainly limitations in the way that research is done at the moment that may make it hard to find the time or the infrastructure for these types of activities. For starters, you need to align your aims with those of your research group, institute, or university in order to get a bigger organization on your side, instead of just doing something on your own. For many, it’s likely difficult to find the spare time when public engagement is not explicitly part of your job. In a survey from 2006, 64% of scientists said that the need to spend time on research kept them from doing public engagement-and 20% even said that peers who did this type of work were looked down upon by their colleagues because they were wasting time which could have gone to more papers.
How to engage the public
Since you only have a small amount of spare time in the day to do non-research ‘work’, you’ll want to be efficient about it. In the workshop, Steve gave us a great model for how to think about public engagement activities. His mantra is to avoid focusing on the activity (e.g. ‘it would be really nice to do seminars with Q&A for non-scientists every other Thursday), but instead to think of the aim of the public engagement as well as who the audience will be. Identify your audience and an activity to address a specific set of goals and aims.
Steve also provided a great template for thinking about the two-way aspects of the activity. Once you’ve established the aims and the audience, you can think about how your activity provides specific outcomes for both parties involved. For example, in the ‘skills’ outcome, if you can only fill in something in one box (e.g., just the audience or just the researchers gain some skill after the activity), then what can you do to try to provide some training or enhance the knowledge of the other group?
When working on a project for our own institute’s public engagement group, I found the diagram extremely helpful-and it made me realize the project had other outcomes I hadn’t considered when when I was drafting the idea. It’s also a nice way to visualize exactly what you’re giving to your audience, and to see the possibilities for enabling and empowering people with your activity, which can certainly be a motivator on its own. Another take-home that I got from this workshop is that you don’t have to make huge changes all at once. You can do small things to empower groups one event at a time. Even if the level of empowerment is just a few take-home facts, a small amount of knowledge added up over time can amount to a lot.
Who is the public?
While talking about public engagement, it may seem trivial to take a step back and define what ‘the public’ actually is. During the workshop, it quickly became apparent that the public is not a single entity, nor one that can be talked to or interacted consistently. The public is a diverse, heterogeneous set of people with varying interests, experiences, and backgrounds. Part of the workshop involved brainstorming specific audiences for events and thinking about who would actually turn up to a public engagement event. For example, events held at museums will have a different group of people depending on the time of the week and the day. If you’re there on a Saturday afternoon versus a Monday morning versus a Thursday museum late-night event, the primary groups at each of those will be different, so the approaches used at each event to engage with people should also be different.
It soon became clear that when thinking of the audience before drafting an activity that we can’t assume the audience is ‘everyone’, and as part of the workshop we were given an exercise about tailoring approaches based on the demographic and their interests. Our group had to construct a persona of a young couple on holiday who came to the museum and saw our science outreach activity, and we had to imagine the their attributes in terms of their interests, free-time activities, media consumed, brands, favorite foods/film/books/games, emotional needs, and life stage. The exercise felt like being an advertising executive, but breaking things down in this way helped us see the barriers as well as the ‘ins’ to a person’s perspectives that could help drive a message home. It helped us see how we could meet people where they are and made us appreciate how events are promoted to target certain groups and who might see and share things based on where they’re advertised.
Making science communication count: get out there!
Public engagement is not limited by public interest, and it still seems that the public has the impression that scientists put too little effort to tell the public about their work. Even in 2016, when scientists are embracing social media and new outlets for communication, there might still be a residual ivory tower mindest that is holding us back from sharing our research. Given that the public is hungry for science, we as scientists should work to give it to them! You can start off by finding events already happening in either your research community, university, or city-whether there’s a museum you can volunteer at or a school that’s looking for a scientist to talk to primary school students about ecology, there’s always a way to find events to connect yourself with. Think about what you already enjoy doing, whether it be writing, working with kids, organizing or participating in debates, or making creative and colorful visuals, and look for ways to incorporate your talents and interests to events and activities already happening. Then when you’ve had your feet wet, think about why you want to make a change in something, who you want to reach, and what you can do to get there.
Last week we began our how-to-guide with the key steps that need to be taken before you start writing a manuscript. We stressed the importance of reading, both the scientific literature relevant for your field, as well as the benefits of personal reading outside of science. Reading ensures that you have key information fresh in your mind, and also shows you how other people write and construct a story. You will be the one that makes your own unique manuscript, but other manuscripts can show you what a finished product looks like in terms of organization and structure. We also went into some detail on making an outline, or if you prefer, a storyboard. This provides the framework you will build off as you start putting your story together.
Before jumping into the five steps for writing manuscripts, I wanted to touch briefly on your writing environment. I’ve heard some people say that they can only write in a certain setting, that they write better at home or in the office or in a sound-proof room, or that they have specific needs in order to get writing done (e.g., loud music, complete silence, endless coffee, bottomless pretzels, and really anything in between). It’s good to have a process in place or a tool that can help you write, but be cautious of getting stuck in the mindset of feeling like you can only write under certain conditions.
There will be times in your day or your week when you’ll have some downtime, whether it’s 15 minutes or an hour between running experiments or going to meetings. If you’re thinking about ideas for a manuscript, write them down as they come. Even if it’s a paragraph that you only end up using a couple of sentences from, it’s important to get these ideas out there in a tangible form so you can rearrange and polish them latter. Writing is one of the most important parts of being a scientist. It documents both your thoughts and your hard work and transforms them into a story someone else can learn from-so preparing yourself to be ready to write at any time and in a variety of settings is an important career skill.
Step 1: What’s the story, morning glory?
Going back to Step 0, what do you have at this point? You have a detailed story board/outline of the relevant literature in your field, you have your figures in a mostly finished state…now what? Before you start taking that story board apart and fitting the ideas into text, write the last paragraph of your introduction. In our last post we mentioned that this paragraph describes the ‘Aim of paper, experimental objectives, and also list any specific hypotheses.’
But why do we start here? This is the core of your story: what you’re doing, how you did it, and what you thought you’d get. From a more philosophical viewpoint, this is also a key part of the scientific method, showing the progress between ideas and knowledge and how you use your work to generate new information to shed light on something not known before.
To see this in action, I’ve included the last paper from my PhD, which ended up being one of my personal favorite papers, partly because of lessons learned the hard way in the first two papers. I’ve highlighted the key areas:
'The objective of this study was to evaluate changes in gene expression coupled with in vitro nuclear receptor assays to evaluate the androgenicity of water downstream of the paper mill on the Fenholloway River. Two specific aims were developed: (1) evaluate mRNA levels of vtg, 17βhsd3, and zp2 in the liver, shh in the anal fin, and global hepatic gene expression profiles associated with paper mill exposure, and (2) determine if chemicals in the Fenholloway River could bind to the ligand binding domain of androgen and progesterone receptors. We hypothesized that modulations in gene expression patterns and in vitro analyses would be indicative of androgen exposure and that global gene expression analysis via microarrays would provide insights into the mode(s) of actions of the chemicals present in the effluent.'
The study wasn’t a complicated one, and I strove for clarity and simplicity in how I developed this paragraph. Work on this paragraph before any other part of the paper and have your PI or another graduate mentor review it for you. Then once you’ve got them on board with your idea, print it and keep it off to the side to remind you to focus around this core of the paper. Use this paragraph as a framework for your manuscript. As you write, you should be considering how to address the hypothesis/hypotheses using your specific aims and project objectives.
Step 2: Start from the middle
Once you have the last paragraph of the introduction, you’ll actually want to go to the middle part of the paper next. In the case of your manuscript, the introduction is the beginning of the story, the methods/results is the middle, and the discussion is the end. So before jumping back into the introduction, finish the figure captions and write the materials and methods section (as an added bonus, these are also the two easiest parts of the paper to write). A methods section is essentially structuring your lab protocols and procedures into a narrative form—keeping the most relevant parts in the narrative and citing other papers/protocols to keep the section from becoming too long. Writing this easier section first can help you get into the writing ‘mood’ and can also remind you of exactly what you did in the lab before you write about it.
For the results section, keep this to a very cut-and-dry overview of what each figure depicts. This part of the paper shouldn’t include data interpretation, just evaluation. As you’re writing these middle sections, go back to your specific aims and hypotheses and see what the data say about them. Work on these questions and use them to help guide what you say in your results section and also to frame what you’ll bring up in the discussion:
Step 3: Set the scene
Now we’re ready to move to the introduction. As we said in our previous post as well as our perfect presentations post, the format of the introduction is presenting a specific problem, its overall importance, and your approach to solving it. We also talked last week about how the outline can look for the introduction (and you already have the last paragraph, so we took that one out):
- Paragraph 1: What is the problem and why should the reader worry/care about it?
- Paragraph 2 (and maybe 3): What’s been done to address/know more about the problem so far
- Paragraph 3/4: Knowledge or tools that can be used to further address the problem
With your outline already sorted, you should be able to fill in a few sentences about each idea. The first paragraph should give a short overview of the problem at hand, including definitions and explanations of key concepts in your research area. This is especially important for people outside your field—those who work in this area will likely skip over this part of your paper, but someone unfamiliar with the tools and concepts you’re looking at will need to get a big picture understanding of your work in a single paragraph. For example, if your work is looking at Gene X and its role in the immune system and how it impacts cancer drug effectiveness, you don’t need to give a broad overview of how the immune system works, but someone coming from the field of neurobiology should be able to understand the basics of what type of study system you’re using and why it’s of relevance for your work.
The second (and potentially also the third) paragraph will be more of a short literature review, which you can expand on more in the discussion as needed. Avoid dumping all of the existing ideas or possibly relevant literature in this section, since it will make it an unreadable series of facts. Start by simply asking ‘Who else is working on a similar topic to mine?’ and work out from there. You don’t need to cover everything slightly related, but for example of Gene X immune system-cancer drug cross-talk, you can summarize the current basis of knowledge for other genes that related to system-drug cross-talk and how your gene emerged as a potential candidate for further study. The length of this section will depend on you, your PI, and also the publisher, if they happen to have limits on the total word count or a word count per section. If it’s on a total word count basis, keep this section shorter and use your words in more important sections such as the discussion.
Step 4: Bring it all together
If the last paragraph is where you start writing for your introduction, the first paragraph of the discussion is where you start writing for this last section (confused already?). This leading paragraph of your discussion is what’s going to set up this crucial section of your paper and tie your new results and previous results all together. In this first paragraph, go back to your specific aims and hypotheses. Describe what you found out through the study in the context of your initial hypotheses, and give a step-by-step overview of what you just presented in the paper. Going back to my PLOS one paper, here’s how the discussion section started out:
'We found that masculinization of female G. holbrooki continues to occur in the Fenholloway River. Paper mill effluent exposure is associated with both anal fin elongation as well as with significantly increased bone segment formation at this site. Additionally, we found an increase in the mRNA levels of vtg, zp2, 17βhsd3, and shh in Fenholloway River G. holbrooki. Through comparison of hepatic gene expression patterns to data from laboratory exposures, we found that paper mill effluent exposure resulted in an increase of genes associated with metabolic pathways, with 62 genes similarly expressed by G. holbrooki exposed to androgens, indicating a similarity between impacts at the molecular level between paper mill and androgen exposure. We also found detectable levels of both AR and PR ligands in the transactivation assay in concentrated water samples collected from both the paper mill impacted and reference sites.'
This opening paragraph can set you up for the rest of the discussion very easily, as you’ll have essentially listed out a topic for each following paragraph in the discussion. In each paragraph, think about how the results you saw fit in with key experiments from the literature and try to connect the two. What proposed pathways or models exist to explain both your results and data already in the literature? What potential ideas could explain discrepancies between your findings and a similar study by another group? It’s in this section that you’ll need to put the most work, which is why it should be saved for the almost last bit of writing.
As with writing anything, though, the one thing you don’t need to do is get it perfect the first time. The discussion is generally the hardest section to write because it requires synthesizing all the results as well as developing new ideas and explanations for what you found. Trying to put this all into writing is not an easy task-but one that you should still give a go anyways. If you feel stuck, try to go one paragraph at a time and send that paragraph to a colleague or mentor to review. Get some feedback from them as to if you’re on the right track, if your scientific logic has any holes, or if there’s a different way you can structure your arguments. The best way to learn how to write is to try, and then try some more-so if anything, don’t be afraid to put words on paper and see how it goes!
Also, don’t be afraid of a discussion that goes too long, at least in the pre-submission stages. You can always cut back, and your paper co-authors will likely also have ideas of what should go where and what’s relevant, so feel free to send them a lot and let them cut back as need be. While you as the lead author will do the bulk of the work, don’t be afraid to ask a co-author for additional editorial guidance, especially if they have good paper writing experience.
Step 5: Tie up the loose ends
While you’ll probably have to come back to your paper after your initial few drafts after your co-authors take a look, there are other things you should make sure are good to go before you finally click ‘submit’.
Literature cited: Main hint here? Use a reference tool! If you have access to EndNote then there is a very easy-to-use plug-in; if not there are other free platforms (such as Mendeley) you can use which also have Microsoft Word plug-ins. Whether it’s a long or short paper, regardless of how many references you end up having, using a reference tool will take the tedium out of this section, and will also ensure that everything’s cited in the correct format.
Tables and figures: Each journal should have a guide for authors which will specify the types of files supported and any minimum compression sizes/methods for figures. Remember that these are the part of your paper that people will often look at first-so make sure they are clear, accurate, readable, of a high technical quality, and, of course, stylish.
Acknowledgements: Be sure to thank any lab mates, technicians, or colleagues who helped out with the project but who didn’t do enough work to make it to the author list. If you have co-author who works in a company or government institution, they will likely have to include wording to reflect that this paper doesn’t reflect the companies views (they will probably add it themselves but you can make a note to ensure that they included it). And don’t forget the funding agencies who sponsored your soon-to-be published study!
The key thing to remember about writing is that you won’t get it right the first time around. It takes practice and a lot of trial and error, which can leave you feeling like you’ve been stuck on a paper for ages. That being said, writing is a chance to enable ideas to grow and change over time as part of the creative process, which can bring depth to your arguments and your story. You won’t get a perfect paper the first time around, so envision your time spent writing as constructive practice towards future perfection (or at least publishable perfection!).
We’ve previously touched on writer’s block, and the strategies and tips you can use to get over the initial hurdle of the blank piece of paper. This week I’ve been inspired to revisit the topic of writing, in part because of my own return to science writing after a bit of a break. I greatly enjoyed writing in grad school, perhaps in part because I knew that writing before the end would help me finish my dissertation, but found that picking things up and getting in ‘writing’ mode again after almost two years of lab and computer work as a post-doc was a difficult task. Where do you start when you have nothing but a blank page? How do you go from a few figures to a draft of a manuscript?
As we touched on in our previous post, there are a few ‘blocks’ to get around in order to let the creative juices flow. Just as with presentations, there is no such thing as being held back in your writing by being a bad writer in science. You may not be a naturally prolific writer (just like I am not a naturally confident public speaker), but the great thing about writing in science is that if you stick to a plan and have a goal with what you want to write, you can always get there. In science, it’s not about how big your vocabulary is or how similar your writing is to the great novelists of the 21st century: it’s about sharing your story with clarity and enthusiasm, all laid out in a logical and progressive manner. So don’t let being a ‘bad writer’ bring you down or become a common excuse for you to avoid writing.
As with our easy* steps for a perfect** presentation series, we’ll detail a step-by-step guide to writing, focusing on how you can go from a blank piece of paper to a respectable draft. But instead of calling this the ‘Five Easy* steps for a perfect** paper’, this series will focus on the art underlying science writing. Because in reality, art isn’t only about fanning those flames of creativity, it’s also about getting your tools ready, doing some preliminary sketches, and having the technical knowledge to bring your vision to life. You can’t just be a good artist to make good art—you have to put preparation and thought into the works you create in order for them to be impactful.
Step -1: Read!
Just as with our presentation guidelines, there are things you can and should do before you begin writing a manuscript, grant, science blog, or really anything short or long related to science and to your work. Before you can begin to write and become a better writer, you should read and work towards becoming a better reader. Obviously you’ll read a lot of papers that are relevant to your work, but how many times do you actually read a paper versus just looking at a couple of relevant figures or glancing over the methods section?
If you want to see how science writing works, you need to read the results of science writing. See how manuscript authors lay out their story, how they bring together figures and results to a cohesive conclusion, and what works and what doesn’t in terms of style and structure. You’ll likely find more than a few bad or boring papers in the bunch, so when you do find a paper that sticks with you, keep it around: highlight the key points, see how they laid out their figures, and get a sense of how they developed their story. At the same time, learn how to critique a scientific paper. Focus on both the writing itself as well as the underlying logic. Do the findings they present match up with the conclusion they drew? Do the experiments they did line up with their hypothesis or project objectives? Were there any fundamental flaws in how they designed the study that weakens the conclusions they can draw? While you’re learning by seeing how others write, you can also take the time to become an evaluative, critical scientist, which is crucial at any stage of your career.
You don’t just have to turn to the scientific literature for reading inspiration, though. Your job as a writer is essentially to tell a story: a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Just because your story is crafted on data instead of imagination doesn’t mean that the methods used by authors from outside of science aren’t relevant. Take a break and pick up a new novel or read a non-fiction book on a topic you’re interested in. How does the author keep your attention? How do they transition between ideas or paragraphs? What words or phrases do they use that stick with you? We pick up a lot of our vocabulary and our way of phrasing ideas from listening and reading, so by enjoying more good writing you can also become a better writer.
Step 0: Make a story board
Sound familiar? That’s because it’s the same piece of advice we gave in our perfect presentations series. Before you open up that dreaded empty Word document (or the boilerplate ‘.tex’ file for those Latex nerds out there), do some ground work and set yourself up for success by drafting your outline or, to use the analogy from last time, a story board. As with the presentation guidelines, the purpose of the storyboard is to provide some structure for your ideas and to let you be creative while at the same time helping you guide your creativity in a logical manner.
So what exactly do you need to create your story board for science writing?
Figures. These should be in a 90% final form before you begin writing your paper. Maybe you’ll add something else in that was initially lacking, maybe you’ll change the label on some axes or change the color schemes, but overall they should be static the moment you begin writing. The figures should be able to tell a story on their own, the story that you’ll craft into words around these core figures.
You may think that the place to start with a manuscript is the introduction, but in reality you should focus on your figures before thinking of any other part of the paper. If you are a pen-and-paper type of person like me, print off each figure as its own separate sheet of paper. Around the sides, make notes about the figure. What do the bars show, on a very basic level (e.g. ‘Number of eggs per brood’)? Is everything labeled appropriately? Someone should be able to look at the figure, even without the caption, and have a basic understanding of what’s going on (such as ‘ok, there’s an increase in the number of eggs based on the dose of the treatment’).
Once you’ve had a thorough evaluation of the figures themselves, draft a caption for each one. Start with bullet points of the take-home messages for each figure. What does the figure show, on a more advanced level (e.g. ‘Differences in nutrient uptake in treated versus control animals’)? What should someone understand about this figure that they can’t figure out just by looking at the image itself (such as how many replicates are in each measurement)? Take these bullets as the starting point for your figure caption, and when back on your computer go ahead and write a full paragraph for each figure based on these bullet points. So now you’ve now got your figures and figure captions, which in reality what most people will turn to first in your paper-so you’re off to a good start!
Experimental protocols. Once you know the basics of what you’re going to show with your figures, start working on an outline for your experimental methods. This is generally the easiest (and also most boring) part of a paper, but from a scientific perspective is the most crucial. As you put together all of your relevant figures, dig out your lab notebooks and protocols to get all the details of your experiments. Make note of any steps of an experiment that fall outside the scope of a more standard operating procedure, or if a group of samples from one analysis was processed in a different way that the others.
Have your lab notes and protocols on hand and give them another read-through before you start writing. You can also look at methods sections from other manuscripts (even ones from your own lab) to get a feel for what information is important and what is superfluous. But be careful not to just copy-paste the methods section from another group’s manuscript, or even your own group (or your own previous manuscript). Even without any malintentions, simply reusing a section may be plagiarism or self-plagiarism. Rewriting the methods section ensures it is current, and it may end up being more clear or concise.
A pile of papers that have already been read. This is again a spot that can trip people up in the writing process. Once you’ve got your figures and protocol in place, the next step is to think about how to craft the story around them. You used the protocols to generate the data that you’ll present in your figures. But what’s the contribution to the existing body of knowledge? What’s the context of why that work was done, and how does it fit into what other data is out there already? How does this help your field understand a problem/scientific question?
As with step -1, it’s hard to be a good writer if you don’t read. And while you may have a basic understanding of what’s going on in your field or within this topic, you need to take a closer look at the literature before you start writing in order to craft your story and lay out the logic in the most appropriate way. So before you start writing, read in detail any of the manuscripts that you’ll most likely cite: the papers with the experiments that inspired your work, the papers that did similar types of experiments but with perhaps different systems or questions, and the papers that challenge your result at some level. Even if you’re read them already, read them again and make notes on the important findings or concepts that you’ll need to construct your paper.
Once the literature review is done, you can use this pile of knowledge to construct your storyboard. Think of your introduction and conclusion not as two separate components, but instead as a continuation of one to the other. The introduction is the beginning of the story, the methods/results is the middle, and the discussion is the end.
In your introduction, you set up the coming tale. As with our presentation guidelines, you can use the following format: your paper, just like your presentation, isn’t a series of facts, but is instead a means of presenting a specific problem, its overall importance, and your approach to solving it. You can consistently keep this to anywhere from 4-5 paragraphs by using the following layout:
- Paragraph 1: What is the problem and why should the reader worry/care about it?
- Paragraph 2 (- 3): What’s been done to address/know more about the problem so far
- Paragraph 3/4: Knowledge or tools that can be used to further address the problem
- Paragraph 4/5: Aim of paper, experimental objectives, and also list any specific hypotheses
The methods and results section are pretty cut and dry, and don’t need much of an outline apart from what’s in your experimental protocols and the bullets you jotted down while working on your figures. Keep any specific or detailed interpretations of figures (such as ‘the decrease in egg production is related to an increase in temperature’) for the discussion. The results section should be very cut and dry, with one paragraph of results per figure. Focus on the basics of what each figure is telling you and save the juicy, exciting bits about what it all means for the discussion.
In the discussion, you continue the story started in the instruction, but now you have a new factor to accommodate for: the data you generated in the manuscript. How does your new data fit in with what was known already? Does anyone have data that disagrees with yours? Frame the discussion as a way of addressing the questions you presented in your introduction, how your results fit in with your hypothesis, and what the limitations/future directions of your work are.
As you make your outline, put as many ideas, relevant citations, and things to mention in the paper in your storyboard as you can think of. You likely won’t use half of them, but laying out any potentially relevant findings can help provide context for what you should discuss and how you should frame your writing. One way to do this is to break down each paper into a series of bullet points. List out relevant methods, rationale, hypotheses, findings, and if you think results were interpreted correctly. Another alternative is to have bullets ranked by topic, and then list papers and relevant results under that topic, and see where the similarities/differences lie. I’ve tended to use a mixture of both, and then while writing used color-coded notations to help me keep track of what sections were written where.
For my own dissertation, before I began writing the introduction and conclusion sections, I first laid out the literature and the key points I wanted to address in a very long outline. While in the end I only used about half of what I put into the outline, when I was ready to begin writing I was able to jump into it quickly, without having to go back and forth between reading and writing and disrupting the flow of my ideas and thoughts. Being ready to write means being more efficient at writing, because you can let your ideas come to life without having to jump back and forth between different tasks, thoughts, or distractions.
It may seem like a lot of work before you even start writing more than just a few bullet points. But think about it this way: How much preparation work do you put into a big experiment? How much time does it take you to code something that’s never been done before? How much washing, chopping, and reading recipes do you need to do before you cook a nice dinner? A lot of the things we do, both in lab and in life, take a lot of pre-work in order to come out at a high quality and to be done efficiently. The work you put in before you start writing will allow your work to take off once you are ready to get started-and will make the task less tedious and tiresome, since at that point all you’ll have to do is to tell the story.
Next week we’ll go more into detail of how to take the outline and figures and construct a story around them. Until then, happy storyboarding!
One of the challenges of having a weekly blog is not knowing at what time or from where inspiration will come. Sometimes I have ideas in the queue for weeks at a time, other times I’m scrambling on a Tuesday night to come up with something for the next day. This week I’m leaning towards the latter approach, especially after returning from a long weekend/Easter holiday.
While I passed most of the weekend enjoying the sights, wine, and sunshine of central Spain, I realized that one of my favorite parts of travelling around Europe isn’t experiencing the modern-day cuisine and the culture, it’s the history and legacies that were left behind for us today that still inspire and motivate me. In particular, I love seeing the remnants of the Romans.
On our first day trip from Madrid we traveled to the walled city of Segovia, which has an in-tact Roman aqueduct that was in use up until the 19th century. The aqueduct is imposing and impressive, nearly 100 feet tall (or 28.5 m, since this is a science blog after all) and stretches 15 km from the city walls. Not only is the original design impressive in its own right, the antiquity of the construction—which was started sometime near 50 AD—adds to its magnificence. We took the time to wander along the aqueduct trail to and from the city, and while admiring the structure I couldn’t help but think of the other impressive works that the Romans left behind. From the awe-inspiring views along Hadrian’s wall as it stretches across the Northern English countryside to the first moment when you see the grandeur of the Coliseum, you can’t help but be impressed by what was accomplished nearly two thousand years ago in a time with no computers, phones, cars, and a multitude of technologies that seem integral to our lives today.
While I am certainly not an expert in Roman history, my trips to museums and my brief bits of reading about that period of history has given me an impression of how Rome functioned and thrived. As the saying goes, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’, and the breadth of the empire also wasn’t won overnight. It was only through years of wars and also diplomacy that the empire became what it was at its height, stretching from Turkey and Northern Africa all the way to England. But holding that much land in a time without telecommunication of any form required more than just military might. Part of what makes Rome stand out, and makes their monuments still stand today, is the recognition that infrastructure was the key to keeping things in order, in making people happy, and in building an empire that would last beyond one person’s lifetime.
Say what you will of the finer details of how things were done in Rome, as it certainly had its fill of bad emperors, slave-based labor, and probable constant lead poisoning, but Rome as a whole was committed to keeping itself together. While other empires may have been held in tact by a single person, as with Alexander the Great whose empire fell apart at his death, Rome lasted and held itself strong for generations. Caesar Augustus commented on Alexander’s downfall in a quote by Plutarch: “He [Caesar Augustus] learned that Alexander, having completed nearly all his conquests by the time he was thirty-two years old, was at an utter loss to know what he should do during the rest of his life, whereat Augustus expressed his surprise that Alexander did not regard it as a greater task to set in order the empire which he had won than to win it.”
So where am I going with this, apart from sharing my love of Roman history? One of the reasons that I’m always inspired by the Romans is the fact that they built things to last, and built things for the Empire and not just for themselves. While emperors certainly had nice places to live and probably led better lives than most people in Rome, some emperors like Hadrian (whose wall in England still stands to this day) spent a lot of his time as ruler travelling around and decreeing construction projects for public buildings and infrastructure that everyone could use. While self-indulgence is always a part of being an emperor, king, or leader, the best leaders recognize that giving something back to the people that work for you is better than rewarding yourself for your own leadership achievements.
From the perspective of scientific research, Rome can provide us with a means by which to think about the type of work we do. We can make great achievements in knowledge and write the best papers ever, but if this work ends when we retire then what sort of legacy does it leave behind? If we focus only on conquering and not building an infrastructure, will things fall apart once we step away? Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, great science also takes time to come to fruition, and the greatest scientific achievements were never done for self-indulgent purposes but instead were done while working towards a greater, longer-lasting good. As you think about your own research, envision a legacy and think of how your work can provide a framework of understanding for future researchers I mean, if the Romans could do all the things they did in the world that they lived in, how much could you achieve given the technology and the knowledge that we all have today?