Learning to talk about my research
I am a 3rd year PhD student in Heidi Welch's group at the Babraham Institute, studying intracellular molecules that interpret and convey signals in order elicit cell responses. My project is evaluating the importance of two proteins called P-Rex and Norbin for the recruitment of white blood cells to sites of infection. I am learning to analyse the signalling pathways and host defence responses of white blood cells. For this aim, I am working with genetically modified mouse strains, and I am trying to become an expert in the field of signalling and the mechanisms regulating blood cell recruitment to sites of infection.
I believe it is extremely important that people outside science understand in the clearest way possible the research that scientists carry on a daily basis. As much of the research we do is thanks to public money, I feel that it is important for people to understand our work so they will continue to support it and to share our new knowledge. More important though, the scientific research is what will determine our future, our survival and our health. It is a privilege to do research, but it is also true that we have the duty to spread our discoveries in order that more people will become aware of the progress made in the scientific field, to fight the scepticism that recently has been spread in issues such as the importance of vaccinating your children. Communicating good science helps us to distinguish prejudices from real data. However, when non-specialists ask me about my research project I find it difficult to use language that makes sense to them so I decided it was time to get some practice.
I travelled to the BBSRC offices in Swindon for the day and met up with a small group of other scientists from across the UK who also wanted help to develop their skills. The training included a perfect balance of theory and practical skills. The goal was to build confidence and develop strategies to help us to communicate complex subjects on air. Few people are comfortable speaking in front of a camera and it is even harder when you’re trying to present a complex topic in a clear and eloquent way that people will find interesting and informative.
Talking to the media can be a tricky balance. On one hand, as scientists we want to deliver our pure science and share the importance of our discoveries, on the other hand, we need to appeal to the media and the public with an interesting and relatable story. Therefore, if you want to stick in the minds of your audience and make sense, preparation is the key to success.
To really give us an authentic experience, the trainers brought media equipment including microphones and headphones. We started by describing an area of our own work, which meant the questions could be more realistic,enabling us to establish a compelling top line that formed the basis of the interview simulations. Everyone had the opportunity to perform two mock interviews, one face-to-face studio-style and one over the phone. Afterwards we listened to all the recordings of the interviews and gave feedback to each other on what we could have avoided or what we should have highlighted more about our research. Though not my favourite part of the day it was a useful exercise.
It was such a productive day that helped all of us realise the need to review our vocabularies. I learnt that it is important to avoid technical terms, or to make them accessible by making them funny or using comparisons so that more people will understand them. Moreover, brief answers are the key to helping the audience follow the content, and they make it easier for the editors too. Short, clear answers encourage the journalist and audience to ask you more about your work and make the research more understandable.
The trainers were enthusiastic and highly professional. I was delighted to have the opportunity to practice interviews and talk about my project in a way that is credible and appealing to the audience. It challenged my perceptions of what the media wants from us and helped me to find the best route to boost my research in front of a wider audience. If you have the opportunity to promote your research, whether it is on the radio, podcasts or TV, I would strongly recommend this course. Most of us on the course had no previous media experience, but now we have lots to build and reflect on so we can improve further and become fantastic and confident spokespeople of our research. I’m hopeful that I’ll get to try out my new skills soon.