Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Power of the Internet

My group recently published a paper and my university's media department was cajoled by one of the other faculty in the department into writing a piece about the findings. It feels really great to have colleagues promote my research. (Unrelated, it's frustrating to have senior faculty tell me that I should have more funding by now based all of the results my group already has, I really think they don't understand how hard it is to get funding as a new PI these days). Having heard stories of faculty/media relations gone bad, I did some background research and read some tips. There are actually several good books to help scientists and engineers navigate through the world of reporting. One of the main tips was to have very clear and easily understood message. I knew this, but reading about all the example about how uninformed and what short attention spans the public has these days really drove the point home. I felt very much like a politician during the interview. I'm not so comfortable doing this sort of self promotion, but I think this is what faculty and the entire scientific community really needs to do more of to stay relevant in the U.S. I was selling what the future holds and the end goal of our project without over-selling our current results, which are still very preliminary. Of course very few people in the world would care about this particular set of results, so I followed another piece of interview advice, which is to focus on what this can lead to. Maybe 10-15 years from now, there is some tiny chance that our work can significantly change medicine. It's also a pet peeve of mine when I see researchers in my field say that they've done something, implying that no one else should study the problem, when they have clearly just barely begun to even think about the problem or only solved it one convoluted way. There's a guy in my university that claims to have done just about everything known to science. He would have you think that he invented nanoparticles, plastic, medical imaging, etc. when in reality he's made a few minor contributions to several fields.

Also, as a new TT person, I'm always a bit worried about stepping on other people's toes. I tried to be very explicit in the interview that this is not something we came up with out of the blue. Maybe this is more of an engineering specific problem, but I feel like most research has been already done or at least thought about before. This work is not an exception. There is a group that published nearly the same results, but using a different device a few years ago. We cited them and their paper clearly states that they are working toward the same goal as us, but they haven't publishing another paper on that topic or anything related since that initial paper that came out a few years ago. How much credit do I give this other group? Should I not care at all? After all, they could have gone out and promoted their results.

Anyway, I did a search this morning with some of the key words that I mentioned in my initial interview and I found multiple related stories written about complete strangers and small internet news outlets (I don't know what to call websites that have multiple professional writers, maybe internet magazines? they are clearly more than just bloggers). Everyone is very excited about what I'm selling as a potential life saving sensor in the future. This is really exciting, but at the same time disappointing that I haven't been able to get funding for this very medically relevant project. I'm tempted to cite all of the internet articles in my next proposal, pointing out that the public wants to see this research move forward. Would this have any influence on reviewers or program managers, positive or negative?

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