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Communication in Science

Clockwise from top left: Isaac Newton, Edward Jenner, Ada Loveless, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein

Each of us has an image of science: a clip-art we evoke in our mind’s eye. When I began my PhD studies mine was of famous scientists. Something like this:

I also had a mental picture of what scientists did. This clipart, in turn, is also fairly uniform in our culture. Seclusion, obscurity, attacked or ignored by their colleagues. Incessant work and dim lights. Perhaps you picture it something like this:Scientist - lonely

This image reflects a pervasive layperson view that scientific breakthroughs result from personal conviction and overwhelming determination.

My relationship with science has changed. Over the past 3 years of graduate studies I have passed through several distinct. First, I spend most of my time reading: learning about my field and developing a hypothesis. Second, I learned techniques: I ran experiment after experiment to familiarize myself with the tools needed to answer my hypothesis.  Finally, driven by an idea and equipped with tools to tackle it I am now in the third phase: testing my hypothesis. I design and run experiments with the aim to determine if my hypothesis is correct.

Compared to the 2nd stage (technique learning), I have found that I am now spending less time actually running experiments; with pipet in hand so to speak. This has surprised me. After all, shouldn’t all my time be spent on experiments? After years of preparation, shouldn’t I be in the midst of furious data acquisition?

Indeed, that is how I began my hypothesis testing. Using brute force, I ran experiments over and over – sometimes repeating the same one 3-4x a day. But there was a major problem: I was unable to distinguish a failed experiment (worthless data) from a negative result (data not supporting my hypothesis). As a consequence I also couldn’t distinguish data supporting my hypothesis from data acquired by pure chance. Massive data accumulation, it turned out, was a dangerous: it made interpretation impossible.

The solution, it turned out, was communication. Each time I ran an experiment I would share my findings with a colleague. I would ask them to interpret my results. Sometimes their interpretations greatly differed from my own. A debate would ensue. One which always resulted in my learning something and usually resulted in a change in the design of my experiment.

With that, my science clipart changed. Instead of the solitary researcher in the dungeon, I began to see science as a conference table. It is dependent on exchanges: opportunities for suggestions, for skepticism, and for outright dissent. Think of the greatest scientific achievements of the last 50years. None have been done by an individual. All are the result of collaboration and communication.

As a graduate student, this notion of science as communication doesnot come easily. I spent the majority of last week preparing a presentation. Instead of planning, running, or analyzing experiments, I prepared powerpoint slides that summarized the findings that I’ve made thus far in my project.

This was a tremendously frustrating endeavour: I already knew what I have discovered. I’ve devoted thousands of hours to this work: thinking about their significance and planning how to proceed. I knew what I needed to do. Why distract myself from that goal by summarizing my findings for others?

Yet it is only through communication that science acquires meaning. My findings, if kept private, would reflect a tremendous arrogance. It would suggest that my findings are not worthy of my colleagues’ review; that my work should not be subjected to their criticism and feedback. This would undermine the core tenet of science and it is something I desperately wish to avoid.

Looking back my original picture of science I recognize that the giants of my discipline became immortalized not because of their discoveries, per se, but rather because they shared them. Their findings have meaning only after having withstood decades of skepticism and tests.

Indeed, the most pronounced scientific achievements of the last 50 years have all been the result of massive collaborative efforts. Although such projects have a public figurehead (Neil Armstrong, Francis Collins, Peter Higgs), none of them depended on any single individual. It was brilliant communication that distinguished these efforts and enabled them to succeed.Science - collaboration

And it is with that thought that I’ll return to my science: to the conference table or the blackboard or the coffee room. There, through communication, skepticism, and feedback, I will give my work the opportunity to have meaning.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Stefan Tarnawsky

MS4 MD/PhD Student. Going into Internal Medicine; interested in Heme/Onc. Bread baker, bonsai artist, aspiring astronomer.