I’m sure I’m not the only one who has experienced this: I give my parents an update on how my projects are progressing in the lab, and they just nod and reply, “That’s nice, sweetie.” This essentially means, “Good for you but I really don’t know what you’re talking about, and it would take too long to try to understand.” No problem, I totally get it; scientific research by nature is very esoteric and uses a completely different language. All of us scientists know that what we are researching is extremely important and will one day improve society by discovering the laws of nature, saving lives by curing a disease, saving the world by protecting the environment, etc. (to put it mildly). And it only bothers some of us that non-scientists don’t understand why what we are researching is important.
But it does bother me to hear “That’s nice, sweetie,” and that should have been my first clue. The reality is that many other professions face this same conundrum: I have a lot of computer programming friends, but I have absolutely no idea what they do – something about coding and C++, but that’s about it. The difference is that my programming friends are well-aware of the fact that I wouldn’t understand what they do on a daily basis because I am not a programmer. More importantly, I’m not supposed to understand what they do – that’s why they have these jobs and I don’t, so there’s no need for me to worry because they know what they’re doing. Still more importantly, it really doesn’t bother any of them that I don’t understand what their jobs entail. And this is the major difference – why was I getting so frustrated knowing that others didn’t fully appreciate the advancements I was making in my field? Why did I need to have this validation? Was this really just my problem or was it their problem?
Then I decided to try something new and talk to non-scientists about other people’s research instead of mine. I interviewed other scientists and wrote articles about their recently published work and the progress they are making in their labs to help address disease diagnosis and other health-related issues. For some reason, this worked out so much better! Scientists and non-scientists alike commended me on my writing skills and specifically enjoyed reading about the research I was highlighting. “Why couldn’t you write something like this about your own research?” my parents asked. (Sigh.)
The lesson I learned is to continue to be passionate to get people to understand science research, but just try talking about someone else’s research so it’s not so personal. You know that you have spent hours slaving away in the lab, and you know the other researchers did, too, but it’s still more removed. And the other researchers will really appreciate that you took the time to highlight their work! We’re all in the same boat, so if nothing else, we can pay it forward and help out our fellow scientists.
If you’ve experienced the same burden of not being able to accept the fact that others do not understand the importance of scientific research – don’t worry, just go with it. Make this problem into a solution – turn it into something useful! You just need to find the right topic to write or talk about and the right audience. There’s no reason this could not turn into a career, either. There are many great forums, such as “Science Cafés,” for recruiting an audience and discussing important research with them. I’m also a member of a group on campus that organizes a series of talks at the public library to discuss current hot-topic science issues, so that the local community can better understand what the actual problems and solutions are for these issues (and ultimately be appropriately informed on these issues when deciding how to vote). We are discussing everything from hydrofracking to personalized genome sequencing, and there is always a large audience that is very enthusiastic and receptive to the talks!
So if you ever hear “That’s nice, sweetie” after describing your research, don’t get frustrated – just think, “Challenge accepted.”