Who are you talking to?

When giving presentations to different audiences, I put a lot of effort into the problem of explaining chemical concepts to nonscientists.  Sometimes I’m so focused on that problem I  forget to ask  the bigger question: Does every audience need to understand my scientific work?

For many years I’ve presented my research to community college students interested in the physical and life sciences. These students often don’t have exposure to research that goes on in the university, so I give lectures about my work in organic chemistry and sensor design. Knowing that these are students with very little science under their belts, I simplify the science and try to make it accessible through stories and examples. Until a few years ago, I thought I was doing a pretty good job.

As a postdoc speaking to a similar group of students at a local community college, I decided to try an experiment. I prepared a brief research presentation, but I also brought my two undergraduate research assistants – both former community college students. The two students talked about their experience: Transferring from community college to the university, working in a lab, and the process of applying to graduate school. I talked for a few minutes about our research project and what to expect as a grad student. After our presentation, the students had so many questions we ran out of time. The humbling part was, not one of the questions addressed our scientific research.

To those students, the three of us were a bridge to an unknown future. Like them, we had all started in community college, and they wanted to know what comes next. They were working at drugstores, supporting families, dealing with all sorts of challenges that have nothing to do with science. For them, the big questions were not how one designs a chemical sensor, but “how do I transition to a four-year school?” “How do I keep up with students who have already been there for two years?” “How will I know what to do with my degree, and will it pay the bills?” They wanted to hear from people they could relate to, who could show where their path would lead.

Recently I remembered that experience when I prepared for a talk at my daughter’s 7th grade class. The topic was science as a career. I resisted the temptation to put together visualisations of molecules, sensors, and nanomaterials, and instead showed up to the class of 35 students empty-handed. I gave a quick overview of my career path from gas station attendant to PhD scientist. Instead of talking about chemistry in particular, I emphasized that scientists solve mysteries: those mysteries can be understanding how things work, how to make things work the way you want, or even how to communicate to other people. After that 10-minute overview, I stopped talking.

There was an awkward pause when the students realized I was done, then they began asking questions – *for one full hour*.

What do you do all day at work?

Why do you need a PhD to do what you do?

How much money do you earn?

Who hires people like you?

Why did you choose to study chemistry?

How do companies turn inventions into money?

What’s the best company you’ve worked for?

What’s the hardest problem you’ve ever worked on?

The students asked the questions that were relevant to them – and they were important questions. I had a chance to talk about the things that I wanted to introduce: working in teams, the culture of science and business, the role of scientists in a company. These were big-picture concepts that would not have been discussed had I focused on the details of what I do every day.

The only fear I had before giving the talk is that there would be no opportunity to discuss what chemists in particular bring to the table – but I was wrong. One student asked “Why would a company need a chemist at all?” It was a great question, and I answered that if a company makes money with software or business services, there is no chemistry required. Then I gave the example of a product that measures something about the natural world – like a blood sugar test. In order to get a signal out of the device, something has to interact with the sugar at the molecular level – and that’s the chemist’s playground. It was the right level of detail for the audience, and it came about because of the student’s natural curiosity. It’s that type of dialogue that helps cultivate an interest in science among a diverse group – as opposed to speaking only to the “scientific minds.”

Did I lose an opportunity to give those students some insight into the molecular world? Maybe, but I don’t care. The message that came out that day – even though I didn’t plan it – was this: Science is fun, science is hard, and it has a place in the world. One day those kids will go on to take chemistry in high school and maybe beyond – hopefully they will think of it as more than a bunch of facts to memorize. Some of those bright and curious students may become the scientists of the next generation. I can’t wait to work with those scientists – and we’ll look at molecules all day.

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