Jargon is any word or phrase that loses or changes its meaning when you use it with people who aren’t in your field. It can allow people with shared expertise to communicate complex ideas and concepts precisely and efficiently. But it becomes an obstacle when you want to discuss the work with someone who does not share that expertise, and often, that is the very goal of our science communication.
A few CMU grad students got together and tried to simplify their research descriptions. To make them as simple as possible, we used the rules of the XKCD Thing Explainer: using only the thousand most common English words. As the saying goes, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” While we lose some of the details and nuance in the simplified versions, the process forces us to distill, and consider new analogies for, our research topics.
The story of a graduate student’s first scientific conference
The land around the airport looked like a patchwork quilt from the plane. The square fields grew closer and more colorful as we descended. I snuck glances while filling out my customs form. It felt odd being abroad, even if it was just for a few days at a scientific conference.
They may do good science, but research labs produce lots of garbage. By some estimate, the plastic waste generated by biology labs in one year weighs the same as 67-cruise ships.
Laboratory waste may not be the biggest contributor to the global garbage mountain, but many scientists are reevaluating common research practices because of climate change. As a result, a growing “green labs” movement has emerged that works to improve sustainability in research laboratories.
A worker checks on the repairs to the Large Hadron Collider following the Quench Incident.
Back in November 2009, the physicists, engineers and technicians at the state of the art CERN facility worked diligently to uncover the secrets of our Universe. Their work on a series of twenty-one million dollars in repairs to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) following an operating was coming to an end. They were days away from restarting the particle accelerator when more than 100 terrorists took over the laboratory deep beneath the Alps on the border between France and Switzerland. The terrorists held more than the facilities, scientists and technicians hostage – they threatened the entire world. If their demands weren’t met, terrorists would turn on the LHC and create black holes that could destroy the Earth. The United Nations Security Council quickly tabled its debate over child soldiers and pondered its response to this existential threat. Fighting the insanity gripping the Council and the terror washing over the world stood an unlikely hero – the delegate to the Security Council from the Republic of Uganda. Continue reading
CMU’s “Walking to the Sky”
In July 2014, Megan Leitch, a civil engineering doctoral candidate at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), met with her adviser to negotiate a leave of absence. At the time, CMU allowed graduate students time off during official university holidays, and had a policy for unpaid leave if more than a week was desired. But Megan was interested in a type of leave that was not addressed: maternity leave.
“Even though I knew he would be OK with it, I still was nervous to tell [my adviser] I was pregnant,” says Megan. “I ended up just walking into his office and blurting it out.”
When my research manuscript was rejected from my first choice journal, I felt my heartstrings tug. I swallowed my emotion, and methodically analyzed every comment from the reviewers. I considered the reviewers’ reasons why my experiment was insufficient and (begrudgingly) assessed why my conclusions were inadequate. I finally addressed each suggestion with new time-consuming experiments. After six full months of poring over this manuscript, bright eyed and hopeful, I submitted it to a second journal. When it was rejected again, I cried.
My adviser had a different reaction to the ordeal. The first time my manuscript was rejected, he read over the reviewers comments with a steely glare. He remained stoic, other than a slight frown. He finally exhaled a stern “Okay.” Over the course of those next six months, he calmly pored over all my edits. Our discussions on each reviewer’s comments were always sharp and concise. My adviser’s reaction the second time my manuscript was rejected: steely glare, slight frown, stern exhale, “Okay.”
Nah, we’re all too busy worrying about whether we’re experts in our field. (Source: xkcd)
When my advisor informed her assembled advisees that I was the group’s “machine learning expert,” I nearly choked. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what expertise looked like. An expert possesses a deep, intuitive understanding of his or her subject. An expert exudes confidence in his or her abilities and reputation. An expert fields detailed questions without batting an eyelid. What an expert most certainly does not look like, I thought, is a clueless amateur of a Ph.D. student.
My lofty image of expertise was not my own invention – our society has an unhealthy tendency to fetishize experts. We see the degree of knowledge possessed by professors and analysts and TED speakers as almost mystical. We speak in awed whispers of their brilliance and intuition. And of course, the praise is often well-deserved; I don’t mean to suggest that there is no such thing as expertise. But the way we idolize experts does great damage to experts and novices alike. Continue reading