Andrew's Angle - November 2019

Last month, Penn State hosted SciWri 2019, a conference of 500+ science writers from all over the country. Huck was one of the biggest sponsors of the event and that meant we got to host four core facility tours, an insectary field trip, a live podcast panel and a wildly popular Science Trivia game for the visiting community of journalists and academics.

Big shout out to Huck’s communication team, led by the irrepressible Cole Hons, for their enormous efforts. I am confident that some of the leading science journalists and writers in the country now have a much better idea of the breadth and expertise residing under the Huck umbrella. 

My own immediate personal outcome of our involvement was an interview with NPR, conducted on the heels of a major new report about antibiotic resistant germs from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This was the result of a talk I was asked to present by the organizers of SciWri 2019. Even challenging title they gave me – The Evolutionary Battlefield of Medicine: New Tactics Needed – seemed not so far from what I often talk about.

But as I dusted off one of my standard academic talks it was clear that something very different was called for. Nothing focuses the mind quite like the prospect of talking to an audience of smart, curious people who know nothing about your specialty – when you also know there will be subject matter experts in the room.

I was forced to think about the very big picture of what my research group and collaborators are about, and that was exceedingly stimulating. It also made me think through what differentiates our work from the mainstream and enunciate that. To me, it’s plain as day. But it turns out when you try to explain it to an audience like that, it’s not actually so obvious. Preparing the talk also made me rethink some of our research priorities. From 50,000 feet, you can really see the forest. I began to wonder about things we had not followed up and had new ideas about new research directions we might try.

I came away from the experience convinced that more faculty should do this kind of presenting. Of course, we can’t have a Science Writers convention every week. But we do have the Millennium Café, 10 a.m. each Tuesday on the third floor of the Millennium Science Complex. There, the Material Research Institute’s ever energetic and facilitating Josh Stapleton not only gets two speakers to talk about their subject expertise, but goes to extraordinary lengths to make sure they aim their expertise at non-specialists and possible collaborators outside their disciplines. 

Not all faculty pull that off (sometimes, it is amazing what some geeks think constitutes an accessible talk). But many faculty do. Invariably, I find those sessions to be more reliably interesting than expert seminars in my own specialty. (They’re also shorter talks so you are not stuck for an hour if someone is droning on). The coffee and doughnuts are good too. I go whenever my schedule allows.

In today’s frantic drive for academic metrics – grant dollars in and scientific papers out – it is all too easy to lose track of the point of it all. As a hedge against this tendency, we should all be forced to take the time to step back and take a look at our position in the world, and then explain that to others. I think the discipline of talking to curious, smart non-subject matter experts is one outstanding way to avoid incrementalism – and, at least for me, to ask whether our day-to-day work in the weeds is truly aligned with an essential goal; understanding the forest.

- Andrew