Science communication

Scientists are specialists…

…at making their incredibly interesting work sound utterly boring: Jargon and scientists’ love for their own prose tending to weave dense, impenetrable sentences.. like.. this… one.

Luckily, I was able to attend an excellent Science Communication course hosted by the UK Medical Research Council last week. Ably hosted by Michael Regnier the short course aimed to cover just the basics – fundamentals of communication like how to tell compelling stories by creating narratives and building on them to hold readers. The course was brilliant – we all got a lot from it, especially since we have to continually remind ourselves that yes, our research is interesting to other people, and yes, they can understand it and even come up with good ideas if the basic problem’s explained clearly enough.

There were no icebreaking activities or crappy mnemonics at all, just some really good wider discussions about the wider role of science – and scientists – in society. As part of the exercise, we had to write a short jargon-free summary of part of our research. Here’s mine: as per brief, it’s intended for an ‘intelligent, yet uninformed’ reader – a twelve year-old, say. It’s actually a good audience to pitch for general writing, as most of us forget everything learnt at GCSE as soon as possible…

Speed-trap vaccines:

Training the body to fight off AIDS using pieces of the virus that causes it.

How do you catch a speeding bullet? Despite billions of dollars spent over nearly three decades of research, scientists have so far failed to find a vaccine that prevents new infections of the deadly HIV virus, which causes AIDS.

Part of the problem is that, like Wyle E. Coyote trying to trap the Road Runner, the virus mutates so rapidly that our bodies’ defences are continually playing catch-up, only able to successfully neutralise a small percentage of old viruses while new ones evade detection. This is because the surface of the virus is covered with a shifting ‘cloak’ of special sugar molecules that is able to change shape in successive generations of virus.

Vaccines against other diseases, like polio or measles, work by showing our bodies’ defences a ‘sneak preview’ of the disease, normally chopped-up or dead pieces of the germs that cause it. The surface cloak the HIV virus uses frustrates vaccine design because pieces of one HIV virus may look dissimilar to another. This means a sneak preview of even a handful of HIV viruses fails to brief the body to protect against all potential HIV infections.

New research turns this problem around. By using computers to examine which parts of the virus’ surface cloak show the least variation, scientists are trying to design synthetic peptides – small chemical molecules based on the virus’ own structure – that effectively brief the body’s defences on only those parts of the virus that change at the slowest rate.

The researchers hope that the body’s defences will be primed to trap the virus as it mutates through certain predetermined surface cloak combinations amongst the many shapes that are possible. So, unlike that crafty coyote, they may eventually be able to head their prey off at the pass.

In fact, although most of us are loath to deign to express our opinions anywhere outside of the peer-reviewed media, I think there’s a very strong case to be made here for professionals’ continual public engagement, whatever your technical speciality – be that science, medicine, policy, law, engineering or whatever.

After all (in brain-cell-count terms) we pretty much peak in intelligence around the middle or end of our second decade. So if that hypothetical ‘intelligent twelve year-old’ doesn’t get your explanation, maybe your understanding’s at fault – not theirs.

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