Conveying Discovery to a Broad Audience


Outcomes-based science promises results, like a cure for cancer or new antibiotics to treat infections. Such advances are important and exciting, but, unfortunately, they cannot be delivered in a short time frame. These miracle innovations are not certainties like the next software update, so our current emphasis on outcomes-based science is bound to disappoint the public. Not delivering on our promises is just one of the many reasons why the public does not trust scientists. Survey after survey, especially in America, shows that the general public has little trust in scientists. Are we all the evil mad scientists portrayed in the movies? When did “trust in scientists” become a political issue? How do we break down the walls and earn that trust back? How can the public trust scientists when they cannot understand us? I have numerous examples of misunderstandings with my own family. I grew up on a farm in Minnesota. My dad attended school through the 8th grade, my mom stopped attending school at 11th grade, and none of my older siblings went to college. But, I got to play with the chemistry set my dad had bought for my brother, and I liked chemistry. Becoming a chemist was acceptable to my dad because I could get a respectable job at a company like 3M. Much to his dismay, I decided to leave chemistry to become a biochemist, then a parasitologist, and then an “ivory tower academic.” To my dad, these were incomprehensible moves—unacceptable choices I had made. He didn’t disown me, but he no longer bragged to his friends about me and a gap had formed between us. Why? Had I become an evil mad scientist? Could he no longer trust me? All I know is that he would ask me, “How are your little enzymes?” in response to which I would attempt to explain my current experiments. After a couple of minutes he would cut me off and say, “Well, next time you need help, make sure you come to me,” which was his way of telling me he was lost. He tried to understand, but I failed to explain. I got him lost in the trees instead of explaining why I loved the forest. I failed to convey my excitement for discovery. What led me down each new trail in my career path was discovery: figuring out which chemicals I could mix together without making a mess in my brother’s room; learning about the complexity of biochemical pathways and their regulation; hearing about the intricacy of parasitic life cycles. How could parasites have evolved such convoluted life cycles and still survive after millions of years? Parasites are eukaryotic, like people, but they branch early off the evolutionary tree, so they have these mind-blowing processes, like editing their messenger RNA, having both mitochondria and remnant chloroplasts in the same cell, and being able to survive in the soil for years, or being able to survive in the human host without causing much damage. Determining how parasites evolved to exploit their unique environments requires that at least some hypothesis-generating experiments be performed. The scientific method is (1) ask a question, (2) do background research, (3) construct a hypothesis, (4) test with an experiment, (5) analyze results, (6) draw conclusions, and (7) report results. I want to emphasize, “do background research.” Sometimes that background


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