Thursday, November 29, 2012

creature comforts

I really really enjoy the fact that, as long as I'm not teaching, I can take off from work in the middle of the day and do whatever I want without worrying about a boss coming to check on me. Of course doing whatever I want is usually limited to writing proposals/papers in a cafe or at home in my pajamas, but still it's these little things in life that make it better. And I'm really, really looking forward to the semester ending to get a few weeks without undergrads constantly judging me and committee meetings. I'll save my rantings about judgemental self-centered undergrads for another post.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Communicating with the general public

The stuff I do is most definitely not simple. The work is nowhere nearly as complicated as string theory, but even the simplest devices my group makes require 3-4 different fundamental knowledge areas. This apparently makes my research beyond the grasp of understanding of even reasonably educated people with "science backgrounds." I have a few different one-sentence descriptions of the work, depending on which aspect of a project I happen to be focusing on that week, but if someone then follows up with a how or why question, it almost instantly becomes too complex to answer without a whiteboard and refresher course in either engineering, chemistry, or biology.

All to often, the person I'm speaking with will latch on to one part of what I do and run with it, which is fine if it's just two people chatting. But I cringe when they then turn around and try to describe what I do to someone else. This happens generally for two different reasons. 1) They are in academia and try to explain it to a colleague or 2) they are a reporter and try to explain it to the public. The first situation has more effect on me, as the colleague might work in a related field and get the wrong impression of what I do and then think that I do crappy research or think I'm an expert on this one topic and then turn to me for answers. The second situation perpetuates misinformation to a large audience, which as an educator feels very irresponsible.

I think this is a problem that is commonly faced by researchers that are "inter-" or "multi-" disciplinary. (Is multi better than inter?) One approach that I'm working on is to only talk about one tiny, single disciplinary aspect of the work. This works to an extent, until the person I'm talking with tries to be smart and says something like "hasn't this been done before" or "how is this different from X" which then forces me to start to elaborate and leads to chaos.

When you are able to describe the work in one sentence, the opposite problem sometimes pops up. Difficulties and challenges are disguised. The worst is when they say something along the lines of "oh, that seems easy." Yes, the tiny piece I'm telling you about will not take years to solve.

Condensing cutting edge research to sound bites and Twitter posts is incredibly challenging. I had to submit a 100 word abstract the other day. I'm not long winded by any means, I think 6 page R21s are overkill, and want to shoot myself when DOE proposals list a 25 page limit, but 100 words is just too few too explain how 3 different areas of research come together to create new and useful results.

In my mind, this is what causing the disconnect between academia and everyone else. We're forced to distill the work/results into a headline. "We're curing cancer" "Climate change is real" You can only say things so many different ways in 4-5 words. People start to lump all the research together and get tired of it. "Gee, how many people do we need working on this problem" "I hear about this all the time, why isn't it solved yet."