By Gabrielle-Ann Torre
I write this on what feels, to me, to be a monumental day for science: LIGO, a large-scale science experiment, announced the detection of gravitational waves between two black holes, while women in STEM were celebrated on the Inaugural International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Days like this are rare. As scientists, we accept that the fruits of our craft can be underappreciated, a tale of null results and wrong hypotheses. The story of LIGO and the celebration of women in STEM reminded me of an experience that shaped the way I approach research and showed me the importance of communicating our science.
My first job was as a Research Assistant in a neuroimaging lab; I was trained to savor precision and to sustain careful, meticulous thinking. I was taught to read numbers and to collect, then analyze, many points of data. During one data collection session, my lab encountered a brain scan with a tumor. The man was young, and I’d shaken his hand just hours before scrolling through the images. The scan revealed the tumor to be massive, plopped atop his amygdala. We sat aside this data point from the bigger, anonymous graphs and that was the end of our involvement in his story. While he’s likely a victim of the tumor by now, his single, small dot added volumes to our study during the years he participated. Prior to this date, I’d thought of all lab data almost carelessly, not considering the effort put forth by research participants. I was absorbed in the hard math and analyses without appreciation for the individual lives who devote time towards research—or without knowledge of what my research meant for them. This was poor science.
I began to understand research better after that day, as I started to develop a set of “soft” skills that is ever-evolving. Designing a study and interpreting results carefully is just a first step. The skills that I gained in data collection and analysis are abilities that scientists in training can take to any position in any field. Most significantly, my soft skills had developed to include mindfulness of how to communicate my science to others: how to frame a project to look at the larger stakes, and how to interpret the intricacies to consider a value beyond just numbers. I think that this clarification of meaning—significance as more than a p value—is what enables science for the broader public. Communicating the way that our science impacts others and, in turn, how others impact our science, is an inherent skill that we don’t realize underlies good research. The ability to relay our own research can help promote the scientific community by meaningfully conveying the stories told in a great research article, grant, or sound hypothesis.
When I feel disillusioned about science—consumed by the intellectual difficulty and wrestling with the practical feasibility—I try to remember these facets of the field. There is an awesome power to science, and I believe this is due to the skills that we can develop to make our results significant for humanity. What is the impact of a number or a dot on a graph? This was the question I was reminded of during the excitement of LIGO and the celebration of women in STEM: both are examples of the positive communication and interpretation of the advancement of science. Both events were able to promote science for mass audiences, and to me, this is more difficult—and more important—than just the math.
About the Author
Gabrielle-Ann Torre is a Ph.D. student in Neuroscience at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
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