Out of the Safety Zone

This spring, Nature ran their Careers Columnist Competition in which young writers vied for their chance to write for the Nature Careers section and their blog.  I was one of the finalists for the competition, but I didn’t make the final cut.  Since I was writing about science communication, I thought I would share my entry here.

Make connections.  Network.  These are recommendations graduate students hear often enough.  But what about doing these things out of your comfort zone?  Since I am interested in alternative scientific careers, particularly science policy, my attempt at addressing the former pieces of advice was to join the planning team of my university’s annual energy conference.  The school of public policy hosts the event, attracting high-profile speakers such as Gov. Bill Richardson, Gov. Michael Dukakis, and Congressman Ed Markey, and I thought that planning the conference would give me an unprecedented view of the policy world and the opportunity make connections along the way.  It did.  But more importantly, I ended up with a newfound perspective on communicating science that I could have only obtained by explaining my work to professionals outside of my field, by taking a leap outside of my familiar realm of physical chemistry.

Although my research is far from applied – I use microscopy to understand catalytic systems in ultra-high vacuum at cryogenic temperatures – it falls under the renewable energy umbrella.  I jumped into the conference as the content co-director, with the naivety that energy policy would be easily accessible to me based on my background.  I had certainly participated in energy-focused symposia at scientific conferences; I thought, “How different could it be?” However, as I began working closely with a number of students and professors of the policy world, I quickly realized how far outside my comfort zone I had plunged.  I began to understand what they judged as hot topics: energy efficiency in China, exporting natural gas, and developing of arctic resources, among others.  In fact, renewable energy, although part of the discussion, took a backseat to energy access and security.

Of course, this perspective was not new or entirely unexpected to me, but I had previously reserved these opinions for older, more experienced decision makers.  It was humbling to see members of my own generation with these big-picture viewpoints. I began to see the irony of my role as one of the conference’s content directors, since I investigate molecular-scale interactions on a daily basis. What was even more thought provoking about my nascent policy insights was that I began to see how I could contribute to these students’ perspectives by making science easily accessible to them.

Many of the other conference planners reacted with the all-too-familiar knee jerk when I told them my field, and I began to rethink my strategy for discussing my research with non-scientific audiences.  I wanted to be ready to deliver an intelligible elevator talk to anyone that attended the event. I am not unfamiliar with this territory – I have done science presentations for high school students – but some of the expected attendees had not taken high school chemistry in 20 years. So, I kept rehearsing my research summary, and with each iteration, I took another step back and widened the scope. By the time I had finished, I was hardly talking about my research at all, merely touching upon the most important points and focusing more on the broader impacts.  And then the light bulb turned on: this is why scientists must go in to policy.  We need explain the “boring” details in a way that is exciting and within the context of global issues.

I’m not sure from my first attempt that I captivated all of my audiences when discussing my research, but I did share some ideas with a few interested folks. It’s also no surprise that I made the best connections with the people to whom I gave the most refined elevator talks, since they understood me the best. More importantly, I found that I really enjoyed trying to look at science from this macroscale lens, solidifying my desire to seek out a non-traditional career. Regardless of my employment interests, however, I would have never learned these important communication skills, which are vital for landing any job, if I hadn’t taken that initial leap out of the safety zone of science.

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