“Talk to me, I am a researcher” – Interview about interdisciplinary science and sharing research output to different audiences

Sebastien, CEO and co-founder of PosterLab, had a chance to discuss scientific communication and best practices with the physicist Geoffrey Iwata. He talks about the misinterpretation of results, the disconnect between scientists and public and the emphasis of and pressure for publishing prolifically in peer-reviewed journals. Read more yourself! Thank you very much, Geoffrey.

Could you please introduce yourself?

I am a physicist working at Kernel in Los Angeles, where we are building state-of-the-art, non-invasive brain scanning technology. I’ve done academic research in ultra-cold molecular science for probing fundamental physics, and in building and using optical magnetometers to study everything from batteries to brains. I like using physics to build technologies that can impact human life.

What do you think about the way academic research is disseminated towards non-academic audiences? From your point of view, what´s the impact of academic research on our society? Could it be improved? Do you see gaps?

I find that while academic researchers are the most knowledgeable about their fields, it can be challenging to find the language and tools to communicate the spectacular work they are doing to non-academic audiences. It can be difficult to convey how exciting a scientific advancement is through technical publication. There is often either a disconnect between scientists and the public, or even misinterpretation of results. Another challenge in academia is the emphasis of, and pressure for publishing prolifically in peer-reviewed journals, which comes at the expense of communications geared towards broader audiences.

This is a huge detriment to society and academia, since both of these worlds need each other. On one hand, academia requires government and commercial investment, and those decisions are frequently driven by the public’s interest and belief in the importance of the work. On the other hand, society depends on scientists, particularly those in academia, to provide the scientific literacy and authority needed to navigate the most challenging problems of our times, across fields as diverse and complicated as climate change and energy production, to space exploration and virology.

One way to motivate broad dissemination of scientific research is to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration. There is already a shift towards interdisciplinary science, producing fruitful outcomes from cooperation between researchers of different expertise. When researchers of different disciplines work together, they are challenged to improve their communication methods. Furthermore, by opening up the circle of possible collaborations to experts that are outside the natural sciences, what other unexpected advancements may be achieved?

Based on your experiences, and with the current younger researcher in mind, what would you wish you knew about research collaboration and dissemination research findings when you started your PhD?

I wish I knew earlier how important it would be to hone in and refine my writing skills in different scenarios, and importantly, how many resources are available in an academic environment. In the sciences, the importance of writing clearly and effectively is understood, but there is little concrete training. In my Ph.D. work, I never thought to take a course on scientific writing or communication. I did not know until the last few months that my university offered courses, workshops, seminars and advising to help me in this regard. I think it is vital that Ph.D. programs place greater emphasis on scientific communication and make clear the resources available.

As I mentioned, interdisciplinary collaboration is an important and exciting aspect of modern science. With so many fascinating fields, it can be tempting and exciting for early stage researchers to try and develop expertise in a broad range of subjects. While this is one way to navigate the landscape of research, another valid approach is to specialize deeply in a single topic, while keeping broadly informed about the latest and greatest developments in many fields. Ask questions and stay connected to peers in other disciplines, as that network will likely form the basis for rich collaboration later on. Collaborations tend to work well when each contributor is equipped with both an open mind and deep expertise in their space.

What’s your definition of scientific communication?

As with any type of communication, it is a dialogue. Scientific communication may be the dialogue between researchers and the rest of their community, or between them and the world. In both cases, researchers must convey information precisely, effectively and in a way that elicits further conversation.

Dialogue among scientists is critical to the scientific method, where ideas and results are challenged and questioned, leading to a deeper and ever-evolving understanding of the world. Dialogue between scientists and society is equally crucial, providing both sides with context and perspective about the world we all share.