By guest blogger Arpita Sarkar, a postdoctoral researcher studying and editing genomes in Nice, France.
I was at a science conference last month when a fellow scientist came up to me. "Hi," he asked, "What are you currently working on?".
My response? "I'm working on this acetyltransferase X that signals the pathway leading to a differentiation in Y cells. I find that lentiviral transduction leads to inhibition of X-mediated Z upregulation which induces prognosis in multiple myeloma."
As a scientist who did not work in the same field as myself this explanation left him somewhat bewildered until he got his head around what I was talking about. As insiders working in biotech and pharma research do we sometimes need to take the time to better explain ourselves to those who don't use the same jargon as ourselves?
Take another example. At a recent company fair I checked out a giant wiry machine; I had no idea how to use it. That was until the sales person informed me: "Think of this like a coffee machine. You feed in the substance here, then it gets purified and sorted based on size. Then pours out the fraction in a cup, except that unlike a coffee machine you have several cups."
The difference between the scenarios above is that, while my response was full of jargon that only I (or someone else in my field) would understand, the sales person went easy on his introduction for me, explaining it in a clear, simple way. That's why I caught on to the machine vendor instantly. In the first scenario, perhaps I could have done with having a couple of slides or images to hand showing what I did to help me articulate myself better. Both the situations, however, taught me to think more about how I articulate myself to those who don't use the same scientific lingo as I do.
Here are five reasons why unpacking the jargon we use could help us all:
Boost in collaborations
There's no denying that we are all specialists at our work, trained in our own scientific words and terms. But we tend to remain in our own domains. As a geneticist working for 8 years, I often have trouble speaking first hand to a protein expert or bioinformatician unless I have prepped myself beforehand. Bio projects these days are huge, complex, and require the union of a variety of diverse experts. Therefore, we are often fond of collaborators who explain things in a simplistic manner.
Some years ago I was at a company pitching for a collaboration with my academic lab team. While the academic side was explaining the larger picture, the company side talked about the technicalities. Evidently neither of the teams got what the other side was talking about as neither understood the terminology the other was using. This was about to seriously impact our collaboration.
The issue could have been avoided if both parties had spent a little time beforehand explaining to each other some of the basics. Working in the science and pharma industry we too often assume that our colleagues are equally adept in scientific terms and phrases. This is often not true. A scientist could be talking to the marketing team, or to a salesperson or to the quality control guy, and therefore it is necessary to communicate as simply possible, much like we would with an external or non - scientific audience.
You can sell a product better
Having a simple introduction on your product could help set apart a great salesperson from an average one in the field of pharma. It is good to know your customers' needs, but often the customer may be unaware of his needs in the first place. When an FPLC vendor walks into a genomics lab, or an antibody seller speaks to a computational biologist, the odds of selling his product may not be in his favor if the person he is pitching to doesn't understand his terminology. A clever salesperson can raise awareness among his customers by talking less scientifically in the first place.
Enhances communication between colleagues
There are plenty of times when even working within the same team requires people to explain to one another something in layman's terms. The other day I approached a colleague for a cloning strategy. Before asking her my question I stated: "If you remember, I am doing this experiment on this gene that works like this...". I didn't scare her with a long technical introduction since that wasn't my goal for approaching her in the first place.
Sometimes, though, there is a need to be more technical and jump straight to the point. But whenever some pre-explanation is required, we should aim to keep it as simple as possible. This will also help to prevent wearing out your colleagues who probably have to deal with several similar situations every day.
Your pitch sets you up for promotions
We all know how necessary elevator pitches are. They are crisp and simple lines that best explain what you do. Be it for company promotions or selling a product to a prospective client we've all used them. But why aren't we using a similar technique to communicate with colleagues on a daily basis?
It's good to have to hand a simple one-liner about any projects or tasks you're currently working on so you can quickly and easily update your colleagues or boss at any time. In fact, you might set yourself up for a promotion if you're able to keep your boss aware on a regular basis (and in a simple manner) of the hard work you're currently doing.
Work gets done more quickly when you, along with your co-workers, are making a concise effort to be clear and understandable to one another. This means not dwelling on explaining things that needn't be explained time and again, but instead are actually discussing work that needs to be discussed.
And this applies to your writing as well. We all receive those long drawn-out e-mails that we skip to read large parts of. So why not write short simple emails as much as possible? In my experience, the emails that I took the time to write in a concise manner have always received quicker (and more helpful) responses. We don't really need to explain our every move all the time. Hence, instead of writing "Hi, could you please help me out with this because I'm doing an X that requires a Y" simply write instead "Hi could you please help me out with this?"
We're all guilty of using jargon in everyday life - both in and out of work. We use them in our research articles, we cram them into protocols and study reports. No operation manual or installation guide is complete without them. They are certainly necessary for scientific discourses - we cannot replace terms such as "antibody", "sequencing" , "pluripotency" or "malignancy" with a more understandable word. However, we can certainly build shorter, easier sentences using these words. At the conference last month, I could have easily said instead "I work on a protein that transfers acetyl groups while functioning in this signaling pathway". At the end of the day, we'd all like to get our jobs done faster, smoother and better. So why not choose words carefully and communicate better? Perhaps we'd all benefit from being a bit less scientific at time...