Explaining nature to those who don’t study it intensely.

An increasingly urgent and new job of practicing scientists (and not just our representatives who are journalists or the PR department of a university or professional society) is to explain our work to people in the general public who’s money we use to further human knowledge. 
I can speak to the fact that it’s hard when I get asked by family/friends “how are the plants?”…that’s such a broad question and I struggle to explain how my research is going without getting the blank stare back. I understand this to some extent, they’re not molecular biologists, don’t tend to think of biological organisms as machines that are capable or adaptation and interact in a very dynamic way with their environment like us researchers do. I can also say it’s the wrong question to ask- “What have you been doing?” strikes me as a better question to ask a scientist. Asked that way, I feel I can better explain some of the experiments I’m doing in terms that might be more understandable- though it does get complicated when explaining some of the tools I use in my work too.
But I guess when I get asked “how are the plants?” I’ll do my best to explain what I’ve been up to in the lab (and perhaps tell some other stories from the literature that I  find fascinating). It’s something we as scientists are going to have to get better at- our work is important- maybe not immediately, but in the long run, innovation and invention drive the economy and provide us with all the great products we enjoy in modern life.
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Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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