Sunday, October 22, 2006

Taking the Easy Way Out

Yesterday, I presented my thesis research in a poster session that was open to the public. The organizers from Princeton's grad student government encouraged us to pitch our posters to a lay audience. Though we weren't really centrally located enough to attract the spillover crowds from the Princeton-Harvard football game, the locals who showed up were genuinely interested and asked questions. And therein lay the problem. Most of the questions I was asked were way beyond the scope of my research, because everyone was more interested in the potential applications of my work than in the work itself.
Maybe I'm being too hard on myself. It's possible that the crowd was already biased toward the biology end of things if they'd heard about the poster session from a relative or friend in the MolBio or EEB departments, who were vastly overrepresented. However, I copped out when I used 3/4 of my jargon-free abstract to describe a biological/medical problem that I thought more people would find familiar. The real challenge for me would have come up with a different way to explain what I do in the lab day in and day out. How do you explain the merits of synthesis to a lay audience? On the poster, I adapted the diagrams you can find on Phil Baran's or Scott Snyder's websites. Using color, I explained how organic chemists like to think backwards and why, if you need variety, it's good to build toward a couple of main components that you can snap together, as opposed to one long process. But it was too late. They'd read the abstract and wanted to know what I thought about the merits of Lysol sprays. I think I got a couple of sparks of interest when I said that many drugs are made using organic synthesis and I described what process chemistry is. It seemed like some people were under the impression that bioengineered bacteria did much of the grunt work.
This is something that'll probably gnaw at me for quite some time, as I struggle to find a voice as someone whose job it is to express why many different areas of science are important and relevant.

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