NEB Podcast #47 -
Interview with Jessie Stickgold-Sarah: Incorporating communication into the scientific process

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Transcript

Interviewers: Lydia Morrison, Marketing Communications Writer & Podcast Host, New England Biolabs, Inc.
Interviewees: Jessie Stickgold-Sarah, Lecturer, Harvard University


Lydia Morrison:
Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Lessons from Lab and Life Podcast, brought to you by the New England Biolabs. I'm your host, Lydia Morrison, and I hope this podcast offers you some new perspective. Today I'm joined by Jessie Stickgold-Sarah, lecturer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and communication instructor at BioCEL, a synthetic biology class that NEB supports with reagents. She's with us today to share her perspective on how good communication skills can support the scientific process.
Hi, Jessie. Thanks so much for taking time to be part of the NEB Podcast today.

Jessie Stickgold-Sarah:
Thanks, Lydia. I'm glad to be here. I'm looking forward to your questions.

Lydia Morrison:
Great. Let's dive right in. Could you tell our listeners about yourself and about your position at MIT?

Jessie Stickgold-Sarah:
Sure. My role at MIT is as an instructor in the Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication Program, and that's a sort of unusual type of instructional program that we have at MIT. We teach across all four years of the curriculum. We teach first year comp for a subset of students, and then all students take a series of communication-intensive classes. First two are communication-intensive in the humanities. And then because this is MIT, we teach two classes that are communication-intensive in the major, typically a science or engineering major. And we teach those classes embedded within disciplinary classes. So I teach a first year comp class and I teach a CIM class, which is a communication-intensive class in the major. And I teach in computer science, brain and cognitive science, aerospace engineering, and from time to time various other classes. And I've taught in many different programs, many different departments across MIT.

And so my job includes a number of different roles really. One of course is instruction of students. We primarily teach undergraduates, but we sometimes teach in a graduate class. I work with instructors to think about what skills, what communication skills and knowledge they want students to have to get a sense of what knowledge students come in with and what they should go out with. Sometimes we'll collaborate together on assignment design. And so that part of the class is more or less collaborative and jointly done depending on the faculty member and their preferences and their interests.

I also spend a fair amount of time, as you might guess, learning about the communication in each department in each discipline. And one thing that I think is really special about our program, coming to us partly from our director, Suzanne Lane, who's done a ton of work in this space, is the idea that the way people communicate in a different discipline is shaped by and shapes the way that people reason in a given discipline. So the kind of evidence you use, the kinds of assumptions that you make, where there are open questions, what is considered a closed question, what kinds of research is novel, which is standard. And we'll get into that more I think in some of the future questions, but really that idea that we are communicating not after the fact, but in a way that is integrated ideally through the research process or even the ideation and design process that those are linked together.

Lydia Morrison:
That's really interesting. So how long has the teaching of communication been integrated into the various scientific programs at MIT?

Jessie Stickgold-Sarah:
I think that particular format is about 20 years old. I've been there myself for 11 years, and the program had existed for I know long enough to kind of become stable and understood, although it's developed tremendously during the 11 years that I've been there. Prior to that, I know MIT had a communication requirement that was more kind of a pass out of it. So you could take a test at the start of your freshman year, and if you passed out of that, then you were good, and if not, then you could take a class or you could submit a paper, just any paper for any class to again meet that requirement. And then later you had to pass out of the technical writing requirement, which again was most commonly met by writing a technical paper for a technical class and then submitting it. And if it passed, then you had met that requirement. So there was no instruction in most cases, but there was still that two-part assessment. What's different now, as you highlighted, is the instruction that precedes the assessment and the integration into the classes themselves.

Lydia Morrison:
Which I think makes a lot of sense. Why do you feel like the integration of the communication at the undergraduate level, why do you feel like that's so important?

Jessie Stickgold-Sarah:
Oh wow, so many answers. I mean, there're several main benefits that that offers. First, it allows students to learn to communicate specifically in ways that are relevant to, that are appropriate to, and that are professionally useful to the work that they're going to do. So I could give a lot of general advice about communication, and some of it would be abstract or conceptual or foundational enough that it would be helpful. But what a biologist needs to know about really expertly communicating their mastery of knowledge is very different from what an aerospace engineer needs to communicate, which is very different from what an economist needs to communicate. So you can generalize and there is value to a lot of conceptual work that's relevant, but it's that application and the specialization that I think is so valuable and so important. What you need to explain is different in one field from another. What you take for granted is different from one field to another. And just the basis of how people in a discipline assess validity or significance or salient is different, and those are all implicated in the way that you communicate.

Lydia Morrison:
I love that you talk about the communication so early in the scientific process because I think when a lot of people think about it, I think people think about communicating your scientific findings. Which a lot of it is, but a lot of it sounds like it's really a lot of the discourse that goes into the research and exploring hypotheses before you get to that final pinnacle paper that you're writing, which is what I think a lot of us think of as the art of science communication when the communication is really important. How do you feel like good science communication helps individuals advance their careers?

Jessie Stickgold-Sarah:
Well, there's always an easy answer that is offered at this point about grant funding, and that's certainly relevant, and it's what in my experience, scientists and our faculty members tend to think of first because that's one of the places where they have the clearest understanding of how their communication is impacting other people. And we work with students often on one of the foundational concepts that I was referencing earlier, is understanding your audience and what they want from you, but also what you want from them. What's your purpose? What's your goal in communicating with a given audience? So often when scientists or engineers think about what's my goal, when they're attuned to that question, they're thinking about things like, How can I get some resources? How can I get some funding? Maybe how can I get my staffing, et cetera.

Now, I would also take a really big step back to the question of how does good science communication help scientists advance their careers? And even before thinking about an audience, I think understanding how you're going to communicate your ideas forces you and helps you to think through what those ideas are. I'll make that a little more concrete.

One of the faculty members that we worked with very early on in material science and engineering commented, after we had developed an instructional program for his class, that if he had learned earlier to start writing his papers when he started conceiving of the experiment, he would think about his experiments in a totally different way. You hear people often talk about doing your experiment and then writing it up, as though the first time you're going to set pen to paper is after you've done all of your thinking. And that's like the most difficult way to think, in my opinion. We say often that writing is thinking, writing supports your thinking. It allows you to think more complex and more rigorous and more grounded. Thoughts to reason in a more complete and stable and consistent way.
If for instance, you are thinking at the start of your experiment about what you want to demonstrate or what questions you want to answer and what results will be needed in the paper you think you're going to write, that gives you a ton of information about what experiments you need to do in order to get those results. So when I'm working with students on their various communication tasks, we start when they're in the design phase, or sometimes we will even start when they're in an early ideation phase thinking about what they're going to do. Because that produces, again, a kind of conceptual rigor and depth that is much richer than if they were like, "I kind of have a question. I'm going to go in and start doing this."

MIT students always want to start by going in and doing something, and there's certainly some value to that kind of engagement, but it's often really difficult to know what questions you want to answer and how you're going to answer them before you've begun. The writing process and the structures of some of the assignments that we will give them and the tasks that they have to complete allows them to do that thinking through before they have begun the project at all.

Lydia Morrison:
I think that's really incredible, and I wish that I'd had that sort of training when I was at graduate school or before as an undergraduate. I think it's the kind of thing that would come in really handy.

Jessie Stickgold-Sarah:
One concept that we find really helpful is called kind of colloquially the curse of knowledge. It's the experience of knowing so much that you don't know how to explain it to somebody else. And this term is first experimentally developed and demonstrated by, in fact, a Stanford psychology grad student named Elizabeth Newton in 1990, who asked members of the study subjects to tap out in rhythm, a tune that they were thinking of in their head. So Twinkle Twinkle, would be twinkle twinkle little star, which is really just... They were asked then to estimate how often the person listening would be able to identify the song. They estimated about 50%. The actual number was I think two or 3%. When you're doing that tapping, you can't help but hear the song in your head.

And in the same way, when you are an expert and you understand what is known and what's not known in your field, what are standard methodologies to use and where you're making choices that are novel or original or even controversial, you can't help but hear all of that knowledge as you're trying to explain something. So it's incredibly difficult to speak to somebody who knows less or who knows a different subject matter than you and understand what they need to know and how you can communicate. That's one of the biggest challenges to people who have a complex in-depth, perhaps long-term, specialized knowledge base. Really challenging to communicate that, and you have to have different tools and think in different ways in order to be able to do that. We spend a tremendous amount of time on that issue with many of our students and especially with our graduate students.

Lydia Morrison:
I think you correctly identified one of the biggest challenges scientists face in communicating. Absolutely. Are there any other challenges that you frequently see?

Jessie Stickgold-Sarah:
In my experience, many specialists, many scientists and engineers but also in other field, are trained to demonstrate their knowledge with really impenetrable jargon. And they're not necessarily doing that in bad faith. They have worked in perhaps an industry or perhaps in a graduate lab where that kind of almost inside baseball language and kind of shorthand is community building, and it's a demonstration of belonging and of being in the same community. That's one way that it happens.

I've also heard senior scientists advise their graduate students that making their communication harder to understand will give them greater status, and that if your reviewers can't fully understand what you're doing, it's harder for them to say no to it. And of course, to me, that's really unethical. It undermines the entire foundation of science, and in my opinion, it makes students who are just trying to understand how the system works complicit in a framework, in a kind of antagonistic interaction that they actually don't want. But they've been told in these multiple different ways, both in a kind of in-group way and a kind of an out-group way that demonstrating their knowledge in a way that other people can't understand can actually have value to them. That's a hard one to answer. To me, that's a hard one to engage with because students learn that that specialized language that's only intelligible to people with the same information as you is good.

Lydia Morrison:
That's really interesting. And I guess I hadn't really thought about science communication in that way before, but I can absolutely see how using the jargon and speaking the language can make you feel like you're a member of an exclusive club. So I understand the mentality behind that, and I understand the challenge that it poses to communication too, because it's not really helping move the field forward if others can't understand the work that you're doing. And I agree that it is an ethically challenging place to be, and especially to put a graduate or undergraduate student into.

Jessie Stickgold-Sarah:
I want to be clear too that I think in many cases it's a misunderstanding of what communication is about. If you think about the experience of an undergraduate student, for instance, they're constantly being given technical language and expected to pick it up immediately and begin using it in a natural and comfortable way as though they were experts in it. That's what the experience of being an undergraduate student often is. So it can be really hard to know where that line is, or when you are sufficiently in the group that you need to start turning back outwards again.

Lydia Morrison:
Yeah, that's a challenge. Hopefully increased awareness of the benefits of science communication, and I think as you laid them out really early in the developmental process too, in the thinking process, hopefully continued training around that sort of communication will help make some difference, certainly in the undergraduates that you serve at MIT, but hopefully there'll be a shift at some point in that understanding. That's interesting. It sounds like it could be a whole other course onto itself.

Jessie Stickgold-Sarah:
Yeah. Yeah, I think so honestly.

Lydia Morrison:
Yeah. Speaking of, what do you think the future of science communication is?

Jessie Stickgold-Sarah:
There's so many parts to that. There's one area that I feel very optimistic about, is where knowledge and research in the field is moving. So the field of technical communication right now is in a kind of golden age. There's many departments of technical communication. There's a number of scholars and teachers and students who are working in technical communication programs or departments. Typically not in our integrated, embedded way, but it's standalone departments where they're doing research in a more disciplinary way. People are learning about what different ways of communication, how different ways of communication occur in different fields, in different communities, in different cultures. There's a lot of attention to the ethical components of communication. What is the ethical task of a technical communicator? Who is by definition speaking about some kind of specialized knowledge to other people who are not experts or masters in the field, often to people who may be impacted by the technical situation or by the scientific development, or by the engineering choices that are being communicated?

So I think those fields are moving in some really great directions and are thinking both very specifically about rhetoric, about disciplinary language, about discourse, about reasoning and argumentation in ways that become very rich and robust. And also are thinking about the human value and the human impact of communication about these discoveries or developments or projects or proposals that are going to influence the lives of many people. You asked me in this interview, what do you hope for the future of scientific communication? What I hope is a continuation and expansion of both of those issues of the disciplinary knowledge making and of the human and social and environmental value and meaning and significance.

Lydia Morrison:
I think there's room for expansion there, certainly as you described it. There's room for expansion of resources, there's room for expansion of reach, I think. And so I hope those things for the future too, I think it's really important work. If you had a couple pieces of advice for scientists when they're communicating their work, what would they be?

Jessie Stickgold-Sarah:
First, I think it's crucial to understand how the way that we communicate is related to, is dependent on, and is generative of how we think personally and in our disciplines about the work that we're doing. So different fields, different kinds of papers. They give different kinds of talks. They do or don't give poster sessions because of the disciplinary reasoning, the patterns in their field about how we ask questions and how we assess value and how we validate claims. And also, I would add to that we can change both of those things together. So we write a certain kind of paper in biology and a certain kind of paper in aerospace engineering and a certain kind of paper in brain and cognitive sciences because of the places that they are presented to one another, because of the way that people in those fields do or don't collaborate, because of the institutions that support and provide resources.

So biologists right now, in many cases, work in very, very large collaborations, aerospace engineers work often in collaboration with industry, with the US military and with NASA, and that's a... It's those three primarily. And the communication requirements of those fields are in many cases pretty strict. And that determines in part how we communicate in those fields. In the field of computer systems, most collaboration and knowledge sharing occurs in conferences. And so if you read a paper, you're reading a conference paper, and that's a very different kind of document and format than a paper in a specialized biology journal. So the way that we communicate has a lot to do with the way that people interact and the way that the field again validates and values certain types of questions, certain types of answers, certain methodologies, certain types of evidence.

But, and this is something that I say especially to my undergraduates over and over and over and over again, those things aren't fixed precisely because they are generated by the social context, by the repetitive actions within a given social context. They can make choices or they can collaborate to change the expectations or to change aspects of the genre. One really straightforward example would be that some conferences, for instance, in artificial intelligence and some grant applications, for instance, in synthetic biology, require some kind of assessment of the ethical impact. They require that people who want to talk about their work say at least a thought a little bit about what the consequences might be and whether this might cause harm. That's new. That's a choice that was made by a community, which changes the form of the document or the presentation that they are given. That's just one example that has come up in a number of fields where I've worked recently, but we can also consider different kinds of language.

Many people in technical communication are working on plain language, which is a technical term referring to language often used in documents directed towards the public or towards consumers that meets certain definitions of plain language that it's easy to understand. There's an ethical component to that as well. How do you make sure that the people who are being impacted by your work understand it? So on the one hand, it's really valuable to know that the rules that you're looking at have some meaning, that they're not purely arbitrary, that they can guide you in understanding what's important to other people in your field. And also, if you think that something different is important, or if the community shifts its understanding of what is important that can change the way that you communicate as well. And I think those two pieces of knowledge interlock to give a really, I think, optimistic and important and valuable understanding of what it means to communicate about science and what it offers us to think rigorously about our own communication.

Lydia Morrison:
This has been a really enlightening conversation for me. I've really enjoyed it. I think the work that you're doing is so important, and I hope that we see growth in the field. I think that we have over the last several decades. I hope that we continue to see growth in the field and increased training and awareness around the topic.

Jessie Stickgold-Sarah:
I really find overwhelmingly people want to communicate and they want to think about their work and why it matters. Sometimes if you're in a large institution, there are structures in place that make it easier not to. But in my experience, people really want to think about how they're interacting with the world and how their work interacts with the world and what its impact is and how they can make it better. So I hope so too, and I think it's really possible.

Lydia Morrison:
Jessie Stickgold-Sarah, thanks so much for joining me today.

Jessie Stickgold-Sarah:
Thanks, Lydia.

Lydia Morrison:
Thanks for joining us today. Please tune in next time when I interview Chip Taylor, founder of the non-profit Monarch Watch, which provides education, conservation, and research focused on the recently named endangered species, the monarch butterfly.


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