It’s all in the words

One of the fun things I do at work is to try to translate science into something that can be understood by the general public. This is often an interesting challenge. At the level I am dealing, the general scientific concepts aren’t usually that difficult, but the language is.

For example, I got a call yesterday from our local congressman’s office. They wanted to produce a news release from their office on a new National Science Foundation grant we have received. They needed a brief, “plain English” project description and quote. The title of the project –

“Collaborative Research: Does competition for nitrogen between autotrophs and heterotrophs control carbon fluxes in the western coastal Arctic?”

Right off the bat, I was in trouble. The single-spaced one-page project summary wasn’t a lot better. The issue was, as usual, with the language. What are autotrophs and heterotrophs? Actually the answer, it turns out, is simple. Autotrophs are organisms that utilize photosynthesis, aka plants. Heterotrophs are organisms that do not, aka animals. Why is this so difficult?

Actually, after some consultation and interpretation with my boss, I found the project is actually fairly interesting. It stems from the warming climate; the resulting loss of sea ice and increased river flows; and their effect on the basic food web in the Arctic Ocean.Arctic icebreaker Here is what I came up with for the congressman’s office.

Description: A warming climate is causing significant changes to the Arctic ecosystem, including reduced sea ice and increased river discharge. This research will investigate the cycling of nitrogen and carbon among the different components of the food web in the Arctic Ocean and especially the role of bacteria in that process.

Quote: “We are most appreciative to the National Science Foundation for funding this significant research. A warming climate is causing significant changes in the Arctic marine environment, including reduced sea ice and increased terrestrial discharge from rivers of nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen. It is very important that we understand the way these changes will affect food web dynamics and, ultimately, the entire Arctic marine ecosystem.”

I run into the same issue when I attend one of our fairly frequent science seminars here on campus. These are informal scientist-to-scientist “brown-bag” presentations that essentially break down to “Here is what I am working on these days.” I usually try to attend in the hope I might actually glean some bit of useful knowledge. Too often, I don’t understand a work the presenter is saying after he gives his name. Although, I later discovered I would probably understand more of the science, if I understood the acronyms and technical “shorthand” they usually use when communicating with peers.

I was walking out of one such program one day and expressed my frustration to one of our faculty scientists, who happens to be a chemist. I felt better when he said, “Heck, you’re not alone. I have a PhD, but it is in chemistry. That guy was a biologist and I don’t think I understood any more than you did.”

It’s nice to not be alone.

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2 responses to “It’s all in the words

  1. So even you genius types run into this problem of understanding things outside your field of expertise! 🙂

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