When I got into science I did not realize how diverse of a job this is. We obviously are researchers who design, perform and interpret experiments, but we are also writers, managers, marketers and teachers.
As students we get to focus mostly on the experimental part and learn how to write by putting together our thesis and hopefully a paper. In the later stages of our PhD training and even more as a postdoc ( while still managing projects, doing experiments, analyzing data, writing papers) we get to give talks to the scientific community and learn how to market ourselves to receive fellowships. We also get involved in mentoring younger students and maybe get to help our PIs to write grants, a crucial skill needed for the next step.
But that’s still not all there is to being a scientist. One important skill, which is one of the hardest to learn, is: communication to the public.
We rely on tax money to fund our research but are often not willing to communicate to people why their money is well spent. We need to get out of our bubble and learn to explain our science in lay terms.
There are many opportunities to do this. We can write Wikipedia entries, explaining difficult scientific concepts as simple as possible. We can engage in programs such as the Science & Entertainment Exchange program of the National Academy of Sciences.
However, the general public’s picture of a scientist (white, male, white lab coat, glasses, crazy hair) can only be adjusted when we get out of the lab and mingle.
To turn words into action I have recently taught science to kids ranging from 6 to 10 years old. I had no experience what-so-ever in teaching children, and I was more nervous before class than I have ever been giving a talk in front of a room full of distinguished professors. What do they know? Will they get what I want them to understand? Will they be bored and throw things at me?
Well, my worries disappeared quickly. The kids were incredibly sweet and very smart. They were engaging and curious. My secret weapon that kept their attention: preparing samples of live anemones and looking at moving tentacles under an i-phone based microscope.
If you are also interested in teaching, get involved with the ‘1,000 Scientists in 1,000 Days’ program that the Scientific American launched to make it easier for teachers and scientists to connect.