I am one of those people who absolutely love science. It took me a little time to realize it, but when I fell, I fell hard. I feel tingly when I see a really cool paper. I get excited when an idea alights in my brain. I “squee” over beautiful data. I have chosen a lifelong career in science. I am fortunate to be paid to do something I love.
Oddly, though, I have sometimes found it difficult to share that excitement with people who are close to me, but I’m trying to change that.
Not too long ago, I had an impromptu "Take Your Parent to Work" day. One of the "hazards" of working in a bio lab is that sometimes your work just won't wait. Such was the case while family was visiting recently. I decided to drag my dad along so he could see where I work and meet some of the people I talk about in conversation on a regular basis.
Gadget wise, our lab isn't the most exciting. I showed my dad our fancy microscope, our data analysis area, our office. The idea wasn't to impress him but rather to give him a snapshot of the place that's a backdrop for much of my life.
Then it was time for work - cell culture work. For readers who hail from other disciplines, cell culture - and especially mammalian cell culture - can be a rather tedious task. It basically involves aspirating liquids, adding other liquids, repeating the process, and then transferring solutions from one plastic dish to another. For most mammalian cell work, the liquids are varying shades of red to magenta, occasionally moving into the yellow range if you've let your cells get too crowded or they've picked up bacterial contamination. To keep from contaminating your cells (or potentially yourself), you do all this in a hood, not unlike a chemical fume hood but for the much more limited sash height that means, in practice, all your work is done behind a plexiglass sheet. At times, the monotony can be almost relaxing, the routine meditative, allowing your brain to disengage a bit or perhaps wander contemplative paths.
This day, my dad waited patiently nearby. I was scaling up clones from 96-well plates, aspirating and pipetting into wells only about 6.5 mm in diameter. This was going to take a bit of time, so I started chatting.
Me: You know, this is really about as colorful as my work gets. It's always funny to see cylinders and bottles filled with bright colored liquids in labs on TV shows. Most of those things have no color in real life. The best I usually get are varying shades of pink.
Him: What are you adding now?
Me: This is trypsin. The cells I work with like to stick to plastic. Trypsin breaks their connections to dish.
Him: Ah, and that let's you take them out and do whatever you need to with them.
Me: Exactly. Today I'm just scaling these up to larger plates. Last week, I added a virus to the cells so they will make a specific protein, but different cells will produce different amounts. To get a more homogeneous population, I did a limiting dilution. I put some cells in the first well, made dilutions down the column, then made dilutions of those wells across the plate. The idea is that some of the last wells in the plate should end up with only a single cell that I can gradually expand until I have enough for experiments.
Him: So all those individual wells have the same stuff in them?
Him: (noting the gradient of color across the wells) Then why are some of them yellow and others pink?
Me: That's because the media we use has phenol red. It's a pH indicator that turns yellow when the solution becomes acidic. Those yellow well have lots of cells, which churn out stuff that changes the pH.
That's a [paraphrased] snippet of the conversation we had over cell culture, which sparked other discussions during the course of his visit. In some way, I was surprised by the extent of engagement. This is not a reflection on intelligence; I happen to think my dad is pretty smart guy. Rather I was uncertain about the level of interest in the seemingly mundane details of research.
There’s a running joke about PhD students explaining their work and being met only with glazed eyes and awkward silences. I think the implication is meant to be that the things we study are often so far removed from what people encounter in every day life to be of interest to anyone but other scientists in our field. However, the real problem tends to be how we frame and build the conversation. When talking with non-scientists, I think we tend toward extremes: being overly specific and technical, as if we’re chatting with a colleague; or being so vague and abstract that it becomes difficult for anyone to understand just what we’re doing. Either way, we can make it nigh impossible for other people to engage in the conversation. We may perceive this as boredom on their part, but it may have less to with the topic than with the presentation.
Over the past couple of years, I have tried to talk more (and more specifically) with my family about what I do, what other scientists are doing, and how stuff gets done (and funded). My dad worked in a textile factory for two decades and has been a mechanic for the last 10 or 12 years. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about my work or will not engage in a conversation about what I do. On the contrary, he shows interest and asks about things from news stories or TV shows that caught his attention. Sharing the culture, the conduct, and the outcomes of science with the people in our circles should be a privilege and a pleasure*. We just have to learn how to make it so.
* Most of the time it can be fun. Sometimes you have to crush people’s dreams – like when I told my dad that Mr. Mass Spec could not possibly do all that Abby claims.
What do you do to share science with family and friends?