Steppin’ on the Soapbox

tiffany-yang “I’m not young enough to know everything” – J.M. Barrie (frequently misattributed to Oscar Wilde)

This quote constantly hovers in the back of my mind.

As an undergrad, I was aware that there were many things that I didn’t know, but it wasn’t until graduate school, where I started to focus on a specific area, that I realized the breadth and depth of the unknown. Couple that with the need to provide backing for your assertions…sometimes I’m afraid to say anything for fear that I won’t be able to whip out a reference on the spot. It’s strange to spend so much time learning about something only to realize that, as you’re following one road of information, there are intriguing divergent roads that you don’t have the time or resources to fully explore, leaving you with a somewhat limited view of the landscape.

Given that,  at what point do you feel like you are competent enough in an area of knowledge to teach others? There’s always (for me, anyway) the fear that you’ll be “caught” with a clever question, whether the questioner is aware of the significance of the question. It’s hard to feel like you know an “expert level” of information when you’re attentive to the amount of things you don’t know, but it’s always a good idea to step back and think about what the general population  is aware of.

That was something I had to consider when I accepted an invitation, along with a post-doc, to give a public talk on the role of epigenetics from  environmental exposures during pregnancy. I’ve given a few talks in the past few years, primarily to my fellow grad students or people in my field, but never to a lay audience greater than the number of friends I can convince to sit long enough to actually listen to my research. I was also a little hesitant in accepting since epigenetics is not my area of research, but decided that it would be a great opportunity to add to my epigenetics  knowledge with the added “bonus” of amping up my public speaking skills.

Let me just say that, even if you tell yourself that you’re more than prepared for the type of audience you’re presenting to, you’re still going to over-prepare and then worry about all the permutations of possible questions possible within the realm of science. The organizers of the talk weren’t totally sure what the audience make-up would be like, which only added to the stress of preparing material that wouldn’t be too basic for some and too complex for others. I definitely over-prepared, but I’d rather that than the alternative.

So, how did it go? I’m pleased to say that it went very well and that, if I had had an out-of-body experience at the time, I would have thought that the speaker knew her stuff. It’s fun to share things that you care about with other people and it’s particularly gratifying to me if I’m able to translate research findings into something understandable and relatable to the general public.

I believe that research, especially public health research, shouldn’t just be about expanding the total body of knowledge, but should ultimately better the lives of others. It’s important that knowledge gained during the research process not stay within the research community; successful science communication is something that I’m constantly working on and thinking about.

I don’t know everything, and I’m not foolish enough to think that I do, but you can bet I’m trying to communicate what I do know.

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