I’m sorry, what?

Written by: Howard Li

Two weeks ago, I met up with a friend who I haven’t seen for a long time. We met in first year and both studied life science, albeit in different departments. Facing the onslaught of tedious assignments, ruthless exams, and frankly ridiculous lab reports, we drifted apart in our second and third year. So, after an awkward exchange of pleasantries, I asked him how his research was going in the hopes of sparking up a casual conversation about the fun times in a research lab as an undergraduate student. Little did I know, he would launch into a passionate verbal barrage of technical terms to describe the work he was doing that took me back to my childhood years trying to parse English from Chinese and not understanding the majority of either language.

“I’m sorry, what?” was all that I could pathetically mutter when he finished. I watched as his face changed into a smirk as he realized, undoubtedly from my blank expression, that I must have not understood a lick of what he said (to my credit, I understood that he was doing something with viruses). He asked me what I though of his project and I hit him with another cheeky “I’m sorry, what?” to confirm that I indeed had no idea of what he was saying. With the awkwardness broken, we went on to catch up about each others lives and I was even able to get a confused expression out of him when I tried to describe my project at the lab.

Now, I think that we’re both pretty on top of our classes and that we’re generally pretty savvy in keeping up with science (i.e. we’re both pretty big nerds). So I was surprised that we had such a hard time describing our undergraduate level research projects to each other. Granted, mine is a biochemistry project while his is more focused on immunology. But with both fields falling under the category of life science, I thought that it is reasonable to assume that they were related enough that two newbies to science can freely converse with each other. And both of us have taken both biochemistry and immunology classes too! However, it seems that nowadays, science is so specialized that beyond the very introductory ideas, the entire knowledge base and mindset of people from different fields is completely different.

If two undergraduate students studying closely related sciences had such a hard time talking to each other, then imagine the breakdown in communication when a problem requires experts from vastly different fields of science and engineering to work together to solve. And while we all know how badly the media butchers and misrepresents scientific findings, can we really fault them? If scientists have trouble understanding other scientists, then how can we expect the general audience to understand with anything short of a universal translator. To most people, science may as well be an entirely alien language.

While I joke, I think that scientific communication is of vast importance to our future. More and more problems now absolutely require the input of experts from all over science and engineering to tackle. And with issues such as climate change urgently knocking on our doorstep, science needs to play a key role in informing the public, politicians, and policy makers. The only way to do this is for us to learn to overcome this language barrier and to communicate science in a simple, but accurate way. To the public, and to other scientists.

Right now, we are students. Our job is to learn so that in the future, we can contribute to society. Part of that learning needs to be in effective scientific communication. When we graduate (hopefully), we will become engineers, researchers, professors, and doctors; and we will need to work with people from all varieties of disciplines in order to face the challenges that await us. So at the very least, we should all be speaking the same language so that “I’m sorry, what?” ceases to be a response.

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