I have a large family: 4 brothers and sisters, 4 sibling-in-laws, 11 nieces and nephews, and a whole bunch of aunts, uncles, cousins, and “cousins” (relatives with an ambiguous blood line so you just call them “cousin”). When I attend family gatherings, I get a lot of questions. Overtime I have developed vague, rehearsed responses for when I am asked about my PhD at family events:
Relative: How is school?
Me: It’s going well, I have no more classes. I am just working in a lab now.
Relative: How much longer do you have, a year or so?
Me: Probably three, but it could be four or five.
Relative: Oh! And how is research going?
Me: It’s going. Progress is slow but that’s how science works.
Relative: What exactly are you researching?
Me: I study cancer. (Usually at this point the relative is satisfied and I move on to another conversation).
Recently, my perspective has changed on how I should communicate science with my family. A couple of weeks ago I had lunch with my best PhD-friend, Matty, and his parents. Matty’s parents have master’s degrees in computer science and biology. They are very invested in Matty’s research and it is remarkable how well they empathize with Matty’s (and my) PhD journey. While Matty and I were speaking about some STEM education work, Matty’s mother said something remarkable, “Technically as researchers who are funded by the government, you are public servants. Your work is given to you by taxpayers, with confidence that your research and knowledge will benefit society. It’s important that you share with others what you are doing.”
I was awed by this idea. When working in a lab it’s easy to exist in a bubble. My PI, lab mates, and myself rarely discuss research from the perspective of increasing human intelligence. Rather, it’s more like: “What can we publish?” “When can we publish it?” “How many publications should I have before I graduate?”
The idea that I am a public servant has grounded me and has given me purpose. I am not doing research solely to advance my career or to pad my CV. I am doing research to further the collective human knowledge, and I should educate those around me who are interested in my field.
When I go home for the holidays this year, I intend to share my PhD and research experiences with my family. However, there is a problem. Speaking with the average person about science is not easy, but it is a valuable skill to have. Here are some tips for speaking to friends and family about your research: