Do you understand my research?

This post is mainly geared towards the members of the Future Professoriate class at Virginia Tech, however, if you are outside of this class, outside of academia, I am confident and hope that you will find it interesting.

Do you understand my research? Often, this is a question I will ask my friends and family after I try to tell them what I have been doing for the last couple of years. Usually I get a YES, but have to admit that my research is a lot easier to explain compared to others. Or maybe I have found the way to explain it in simple terms, because certainly I have also explained it in terms that I leave everyone confused, including myself. Talking with people that is constantly immerse in the academia, or research environment, seems to be easier for the majority of researchers. But reaching out to the public, or even with researchers that are in a different field is usually a challenge.

About a month ago, or even a little bit longer, our Future Professoriate class transformed from the regular environment into a “theater school”. The session started with dialogues about how we usually communicate. Do we just talk? How about our body language? What type of spoken language are we using? How do we learn better? and then transitioned into action, taking as out of our comfort zones, being extrovert and not caring too much about what others could think. At least that was my experience.

Possibly it would had been better to post about this then, but well, better late than never, I guess. The main reason why I am posting about it now, and sharing a little of the story, is because an article I found while checking for topics to blog about this week: “Publicize Your Research” by Audrey Williams June (you may need subscription to access the link, sorry!). Reading through it brought memories about that evening in the FP class. There are very interesting points in the article, and I invite you to read it, but in case you skip it, think about the following as one of the core points: if research is not communicated outside of the academic world, how are we going to know about it? How are we going to know why it is important? How can we justify to the public that the tax money invested in education is not being wasted? (questions somewhat paraphrased from referenced article, this is my version of free style citation). To clarify, I am trying to write this post as a graduate student doing research and as a member of the general public at the same time, hence the “we” in my questions.

Communicating research/findings to the general audience is critical, and doing so effectively is even more critical. I am glad that several Universities are being proactive and offering workshops for faculty, staff and students to learn how to communicate better. See here for some examples, also check Virginia Tech’s Center for Communicating Science. I was extremely shy when I was younger, talking to my classmates and general public in high school was a challenge for me. Thankfully, I had good helpers along the way, people that forced me to get away from my comfort zone. Also being part of student organizations for the last 8 years has given me a confident bust as well. And is not only about public speaking, it is about communicating in general, it is about how you write your ideas for others to read. This blog for example, me a blogger? never crossed my mind.

So if you are a researcher, take time to train on how to effectively reach others. If you are someone outside of research, ask researchers what they do when you get a chance. The more you ask the better for us (researchers). The more we tell our research stories, the better for all.

Carlos F. Mantilla P.

4 Comments

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4 Responses to Do you understand my research?

  1. erinleighvt

    Teaching others about what we do is absolutely imperative for sure. Education extends beyond primary and secondary school and beyond higher education. We must learn from others in our day-to-day lives as well, and to do this, we must talk to others and discuss what they do, what they know, etc.

  2. dowlingm

    Since that Communicating Science workshop we did, I’ve been wondering if the reason why we’re so terrible at it is similar to the reasons why promoting open access is difficult right now: certain venues for presenting your research are considered more prestigious than others. For example, presenting your research at a conference in your field or publishing at a journal (even open access) in your field is generally considered “better” than giving a public talk about your research. The reason for it is that you can communicate your ideas directly to the scientific community that will be immediately affected by the new research. However, this does perpetuate a situation where we aren’t talking to other scientists in different fields, let alone laypeople. Thus, we get no practice at doing it, and many don’t see the point in trying. After all, if you can describe your research to the people who care about it most, why do you NEED to be able to describe it to anyone else?

    The reason that we should be able to communicate our ideas outside our fields are all the reasons you stated and then some. We need to be able to connect with each other and scientists and researchers. In so doing, we can form unique collaborations and do some really cool research. We also need to be able to explain to people why our research matters so that they understand what it is we do and how it affects them. I think this matters to the general public even beyond their taxpayer dollars.

    • Carlos F Mantilla P

      Yes definitely, tax dollars because of the current bill, but absolutely it goes beyond that. I believe everyone should pay more attention to what is going on in the world, research and not-research. The problem of sometimes not understanding, or not caring to understand, is that we can wash our hands when something wrong happens and say that we had nothing to do with it, but without caring about it, we are already part of whatever ends up happening…. think went off a little bit on a tangent, but at the end we should try to reach out to everyone

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