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Science is Personal

Science has a hard time resonating with the public. The jargon-heavy, statistics-heavy conclusions of research papers always get lost in translation. So we get climate change deniers and vaccination conspiracists. For so long I blamed those people for being uneducated and stubborn. It’s hard for me to consider that science reporting failed them, rather than the other way around. But maybe science did fail them.

Science failed when it didn’t convey to the public the gravity and severity of climate change. Science failed when it allowed a fraudulent paper linking the MMR vaccine to autism to be published. Maybe science fails when it’s too science-y. Maybe it fails when it fails to be personal.

We spent this week learning how to use science as a storyteller. The goal was to produce a podcast that would relate our research on a personal level, to distill our lofty hypotheses and serve them as palatable stories. This assignment allowed me to step back from the pipetting and centrifuging in lab and look at the big picture: why did my research matter?

My hypothesis: specific Tardigrade genes confer heightened resistance to radiation. We had learned that even my eight-letter summary contained jargon that alienated my research from anyone who wasn’t a biologist. In our podcasts, we had to define each term of jargon. Tardigrades equal microscopic animals that can tolerate a range of stresses, including radiation. Genes equal the thing that codes for some characteristic in a living thing. And so on. Then, instead of conveying results in terms of graphs and statistical analyses, we had to relate why our research was exciting, why it mattered.

Luckily, I had scheduled to visit home that weekend. I sat down with my father, a radiation oncologist, to discuss my project and what it could mean for his field of medicine. He told stories of patients undergoing radiation therapy for their cancer, who suffered side effects like nausea, fatigue, and an inability to swallow. We mused that maybe my research, if successful, could be used to imbue healthy body cells with radiation resistance during radiation therapy, eliminating the painful side effects. Technically, my project had been funded by NASA with the hope that finding genes for radiation resistance could one day eliminate one of the biggest barriers to space travel: cosmic radiation. But exploring the more personal implications of my research with my father was interesting and fun. It made me realize that the narrative I was building in my podcast was just as important as the actual data I collected in lab. The narrative decided how my research was viewed and how it would one day be applied, from the vast, like space travel, to the microscopic, like cancerous cells.

Armed with my finished podcast, I walked into the North building to hear the podcasts of the other Huang fellows. By now, I knew the hypotheses of most of their research, but I was excited to hear how they dissected their work in their podcasts. One fellow’s podcast discussed the work of a local center for diabetes as well as any commercial could. Another talked about ingesting a parasite to prevent allergies in such a whimsical way that I was sure a child could listen and learn. I loved hearing all the different ways the Fellows presented their work, and though I understood the science of their work already, listening to their podcasts gave me a deeper understanding of its implications and applications. And though the topics ranged from neuroscience to quantum chemistry, I was able to discover that each Fellow’s work applied to me. It was personal.

Science is deeply personal. It explains everything about our lives. But sometimes it’s hard to see that; it’s hard to look at your arm and see the miniscule atoms that build it. It’s especially hard to read a scientific paper and understand its implications. There has to be better ways to make research accessible to non-scientists. These podcasts were one tool the program gave us to relate our work with the public and to make science personal. Knowing how to show people how intricately entwined our lives are with science, I feel confident to pursue a career in science that is present and impactful.

Raksha Doddabele, Huang Fellow ’18

Raksha DoddabeleRaksha plans to major in biology and to work in wildlife conservation.