It’s been close to three months since the release of The Germ Code and I continue to be overwhelmed by the positive reaction to the tome. It’s been an incredible experience and I am truly grateful.
Admittedly, the attention to the book – along with the commitments to Huffington Post, Popular Science, Globe and Mail, and other writing endeavours – has taken me away from this blog. That being said, I feel safe to now devote this site to more personal insights and perspective on this journey that would not have a place anywhere else.
Over the weekend, I was in the lovely city of Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory.
It was my first time to venture so far north in Canada and I was amazed at the cordial nature of the people and the incredible spirit each of them possesses.
I gave talks to both the general public – thanks to the Yukon Science Institute – and to a group of students at a local elementary school. It was yet another first for me; I had never talked to such a young group of people. Both audiences were not only excited, but also engaged.
At one moment during the first talk, a person happened to ask me a very simple question:
“How do you make something so scientific so interesting?”
My response was equally as simple:
“I don’t talk about germs, I talk about relationships.”
The facial expression was that suggested there was another question about to be posed. Sure enough, it came out: “How?”
“I tell stories.”
The answer was pithy yet seemed to suffice as the individual went on with an inscribed book and a smile.
On the trip home, I had 12 hours to think about my response. Why was telling these stories so effective? It was an interesting retrospective both on my career as a researcher as well as my current direction in scientific storytelling.
Throughout our history, humans have told stories as it is the basis for the majority of our entertainment. Depending on the format, there is a particular protocol involved. Music has a score, dramatic arts have a script, novels use prose and reality programs including documentaries use human challenges and other situations.
Could storytelling also be the common denominator for science? I’m sure that for many, that answer would have to be certainly no.
But I’ve learned it is actually quite the opposite. In fact, of all the genres of expression that exists in the human realm, science is in itself devoted to storytelling. The problem is that over the years, the format has changed so much that one need to be trained to appreciate these purely ‘academic’ tales.
The standard story structure is as follows:
Intro – Conflict – Action -
Climax – Resolution
In science, the format is as follows:
Intro – Hypothesis – Methods -
Results – Discussion/Conclusions
There is one additional element in science and indeed in most academic literature: the citations section. This is where the two genres diverge.
In a standard story, unless it is part of a series, everything needed to understand the plot, its arcs, its characters and its environment is presented within the structure. In science, one can cite a previous paper – another scientific story – to provide context. While at one time, citations were few and only offered perspective with the majority of information contained within the text; today, there may be dozens to prevent the research findings from turning into novellas.
Underneath the complex and jargon-filled offerings and citations, the narrative can be rather dramatic and indeed fascinating. What’s more is that many of them can be directly related to the concerns and needs of the general public. But much like an incredible story told in a different language, it’s almost impossible for the majority to understand.
That’s where scientific storytelling – or perhaps, re-telling – comes into play.
Just think about the following.
A researcher comes up with a question. He or she spends countless hours assembling a team, developing grant proposals, optimizing experimental procedures and focusing the work to ensure the results provide a meaningful answer. There will be heartbreak with failing results and elation when experiments work.
Over the coming months and years, the question may become dynamic, changing slightly to accommodate the observations. Eventually, when the decision is made that there is enough data to make a valid conclusion – which is never a given – the attempt to publish begins. Rejections, modifications, requests for more work will undoubtedly happen. Then there is the risk of the completely devastating realization that someone else already did your work and published it first.
Finally, after what may seem an eternity, the story can finally be told on paper, at presentations, and hopefully in the media.
This is what researchers must face and in my view, it is an honour to share their vocations to an audience far wider than the readers of the journal or the participants of a conference. But rather than develop an entirely new story, I choose to re-tell the work, just in a different format. Think of it as a public-friendly remix of what has been done in the lab.
Or, if you wish…this:
Granted, my contributions are somewhat different than many expect from traditional science communication. But my ramblings, like many other remixes, go beyond traditional borders to open up new paths for broader thinking and possibly, collaboration. In essence, I may be painting outside the lines but I always strive to bring those who read and watch me some…well…glee.
Feel free to groan…then let me know your thoughts.
P.S. This is the first in a series of posts on the topic of SciPOP – a new concept whereby the goal is not only communicating science, but also making it the talk of the day – at the water cooler, the dinner table, the gym, the dance hall and perhaps most importantly, the bedroom – okay, maybe not there but you get the point.