Sunday, 11 March 2012

Science Communication

This is a slimmed down version of an old post from my other blog, since I'm moving Science related posts to this blog, leaving my old blog free for non science related ramblings.

My PhD has been an interesting ride so far - I'm working on a wheat ear fungus called Fusarium culmorum, but modelling the infection in a little cress type plant called Arabidopsis which is also susceptible to Fusarium infection in its floral tissue. Arabidopsis has a quicker life cycle than wheat, and is easier to study at the genetic level.

I spent the first 5 months trying to get the fungus to successfully infect Arabidopsis floral tissue. I tried many things, from lowering the temperature to infecting the plants earlier to giving the fungus special nutrients to help it grow, with varying degrees of success.

I got lots of helpful comments from friends and family; "well then surely you've cured the disease if your plants are already resistant?" which made me realise that I maybe wasn't communicating my research very well. This irritated me, because Science Communication is something that I'm very passionate about and would maybe like a career in some day, and I felt I had failed if I couldn't get my own mother to understand the point of my research, and that the cress plant was just a 'model' - it's wheat that we're trying to protect against Fusarium.

The problem is, not all Science is equal(ly interesting) in the eye of the lay person. This became very clear at the student symposium in March - an event when all the PhD students at Rothamsted Research made posters and gave presentations to showcase their projects. Topics ranged from control strategies against invasive ladybirds, to whether sick bees have altered learning capability, to the epigenetics of defence priming against Pseudomonas to....oh sorry, did I loose you at bees and ladybirds?

And herein lies the problem - some research areas just seem more lay person friendly. Nearly everyone with some level of interest in ecology will know that honey bee populations are declining, and that a foreign ladybird named the harlequin is eating our natives. And even if they don't, a simple explanatory sentence, such as the previous one, will suffice as a basic introduction. And people generally like honey bees and ladybirds. Fungal diseases of wheat are, on the other hand, an acquired taste - very acquired in fact, since Fusarium produces deadly toxins. The fact that fungal diseases are the leading cause of yield loss in wheat, and that wheat is one of the most widespread and important food crops in the world, should get people pricking their ears - but without the degree of anthropomorphism assigned to bees, butterflies, ladybirds and dare I say it, even aphids - it's a tough topic to get people interested in.

I don't mean to imply that entomologists (those who study insects) have it easy. Yes, perhaps I am a little jealous - mostly though I'm just dancing around my own head looking for ways to communicate my research, and its importance, to the general public. Until then, I'll stick to judging primary school competitions and telling people about stuff I don't personally work on - no one said I had to communicate MY science, right?

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