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
This is the final part of my series documenting my time at the Developmental Biology of Sea Urchins conference in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Previous entries: Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.
Part 5: Lessons Learned and Coming Home
All we have to do now is wait for our shuttle back to the airport. Around me there are all sorts of scientists who look just how I feel: Tired and ready to go home for some relaxation, but also anxious and ready to get back into the lab and work on some of the ideas that they got from the conference. A number of them also look like they have hangovers that could slay the most alcohol-tolerant of English dockworkers. So, you know, a pretty successful week, overall. I had a great time at the conference. It was very interesting, but also quite a bit of work for me. Even after two years of working on this system, there is just so much more to know about how sea urchins grow and develop. It can be a bit overwhelming, but I know that if other people here can understand it, then in the future I can too. I hope that next time I have a talk to give, because it really seems like talking to these people about my work would be extremely exciting and rewarding.
Previous entries: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
Part 4: The Last of the Talks & a Poster Session
I’d like to take a moment to talk more generally about the dinners here. Not about the food, mind you, but about the people. For example, as people arrived on the first day, they would unload their stuff as quickly as they could to get to the dining hall. Yes, they we hungry, but more often they were coming in to see who was already there. Almost all of the professors in the sea urchin community know each other, either from past meetings or from having worked in the same labs before, as graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. And so there was a distinct reunion vibe to this first dinner that was a bit infectious. I remember one woman walking in with her bags and looking around. When she saw someone she knew, she dropped her bags and ran across the room to give him a hug and start a conversation. While these people email and call each other fairly frequently, they only get to see each other at this meeting, which only happens once every eighteen months or so. It doesn’t matter that they’re scientists, they still treat this meeting as a great opportunity to catch up with old friends. One really interesting way this manifests is that the PIs often all sit together at two or three tables in the corner, so that they can all keep talking at every meal. Also, at dinner tonight, I had the apparently revolutionary idea to walk along the whole dinner buffet to decide what I wanted to eat before getting into line. I find it fascinating that people that are generally very careful can go to dinner, get their food, then sit at a table with their friends and say, “Oh, shoot, they had corn bread? Why did I fill my plate with salad?”
Previous entries about my experience at Developmental Biology of Sea Urchins: Part 1, Part 2
Day 3: Finding A Routine, Learning New Strategies, Seeing Strange Fashion
On Saturday night, there’s a poster session and mixer. Over the last two days, many perfectly polished posters were pushpinned into place. In other, less alliterative words, right now there’s a room full of posters waiting to be discussed. It kind of feels like a locker room, with all of the posters playing the part of a team getting ready for their moment to shine.