by Daniel Taub
Aside from effectively performing your experiments, being able to convey your scientific findings is arguably the most important skill to have in science. After all, if you can’t communicate your findings to the scientific field they essentially don’t exist. However, it is not enough to simply communicate your findings anymore. You should also be excited by your work and be able to excite your colleagues with your ideas. Excitement about your work is your key to career success and advancement, whether in academia or industry.
Why is Being Excited About your Work Crucially Important?
We’ve all been at that meeting or seminar where the speaker just seems to drone on and on for what seems like hours – think Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller. Not only is it boring but also you don’t retain any information no matter how interesting the actual data are. If your audience is not stimulated by your work and presentation, it’s unlikely they will remember any of it.
More importantly you should be excited about your work for yourself! You spend 40+ hours per week on this data, you should be proud of it. I often attend seminars or posters where the presenter says something similar to “so this is just a Western blot showing my protein is expressed, it’s ‘no big deal’”. This is the wrong mentality and the wrong phrase to say to your audience. If you tell me that it’s no big deal that is my cue to stop listening. Further, if you truly think it is no big deal, then why is it in your presentation at all? Data that are “no big deal” should be close by so if someone asks, you can show them that data. The poster/presentation is your chance to shine and show off just how truly ground breaking your work is – don’t squander it.
Finally, when looking to attract potential employers, excitement in your work is a big selling point. During interviews for any position in science, from technician to faculty, one of my major criteria is that they are excited and passionate about their work. I know they will be a good employee, produce quality work, and go above and beyond if they are passionate. In addition, I know they will be pleasant to work with because they will match my passion for the work. There is many times where I’ve recommended hiring someone who is excited and passionate over someone who seemed only slightly interested, even if they didn’t meet most of the qualifications.
How Do I Get Excited About my Work?
It may sound silly but you can practice and improve on being excited about your work. This is not news to the world of business where getting people interested in your ideas is crucial to obtaining the capital to execute them. Here are my tips:
- What is the Real World Application?
From basic science to direct translational research, there is always a sound and important reason for conducting your work. The key is to identify these reasons. When someone outside of the scientific bubble asks you about your work, they often ask “So, what does this mean? How is this information useful?”. You should have those answers primed and ready at all times. There are many of you who may argue that your research is so “basic” that it doesn’t have a real world application. Again, this is the wrong mentality and also wrong factually. A large majority of “basic” science findings have translated into the medicinal field or revolutionized our world. If you need examples, look at any number of the Nobel Prizes awarded, such as the invention of Green Fluorescent Protein. You need to be able to recognize the potential of your research in the broader context.
If you have some relevance to a medical process or disease, this is a relatively easy point to grasp. No matter how far removed you think your work is from the disease, you must understand that the research you are doing is in fact relevant and important. Learn as much as you can about the disease or medical process, just as you would with your research focus. I also highly recommend getting in touch with local chapters of patient advocacy groups, attending fundraisers, and speaking with practicing medical doctors. These activities put a face to the problem you are working on and often drive you to work harder. Getting one step closer to understanding a disease-related process, no matter how small it seems, is a major accomplishment and can benefit humanity greatly.
If your real world application appears more elusive, try to use “If…then…”
statements. When I’m working on a problem I always identify “If I can demonstrate X, then this opens the possibility for Y”. This strategy helps you to visualize both immediate and long-term goals in addition to placing your work in a greater context.
- Talk with Scientists Within and Outside of your Field
Everyone has a different background and a different eye when it comes to science. Talking with others often leads to exciting new avenues of research and also reignites your excitement for your work. In many cases, other scientists can see diamonds where you see coal. For this to work well, you should talk with people inside and outside of your field. The varied opinions can be very constructive and open the road for interdisciplinary research. When speaking with people inside your field, you should confide in someone you trust and feel comfortable with. Obviously, you likely don’t want to speak to someone in a competing lab or someone who intimidates you, like a PI or department chair. I recommend a fellow student or colleague at your level of training; they will usually be the most up-to-date in the literature as well. Ask them to get their opinion during a coffee break or over lunch. If anyone asks me for my opinion on their work, I’m instantly honored and going to give it my undivided attention. I think most people feel the same. As a fellow scientist, I know that you form a connection with your data and it took you a lot of energy and time to collect it, therefore, I will do everything I can to help you.
Talking with scientists outside of your field is equally important. They can often identify other methods for getting at your problem, additional controls you may have missed, or have worked on analogous problems in their field. In addition, you get the added benefit of explaining your research to someone who is familiar enough with science to engage you in a meaningful conversation. Again the key to this working is identifying someone you trust and can confide in.
- Attend Local Conferences, Webinars or Journal Clubs
Look for local chapters of national research organizations or search for free webinars provided by a number of journals. These often come at no or little cost to you to attend and you don’t have to present if you don’t want to. The idea behind this is to get the creative juices flowing. Seeing other scientists’ work really invigorates my work ethic. This can be very helpful to recharge your excitement, especially after a long couple of weeks in the lab or if you’re stuck on a specific problem. Be engaged as well! Ask questions, meet others, and best of all, stay for the cocktail hour after the session is over.
- Practice Speaking
Most of us aren’t great orators and the great speakers you hear today likely got that way by practicing over and over. To keep your audience excited and engaged, use hand gestures while speaking and change your tone, volume, or emphasis on words. This variety is important in keeping the audience with you and actively listening. Melissa Marshall, a communications teacher, says that energy and enthusiasm for what you are presenting is the most important aspect to capturing your audience. For more of her insights and her TED talk on the subject see: http://blog.ted.com/6-tips-on-how-scientists-and-engineers-can-excite-rather-than-bore-an-audience/). In addition, talking through your project is extremely valuable in identifying holes in your logic or areas where you need improvement. Ask a close group of friends to listen to you speak. Many universities, including BUMC (see the BUMC Toastmasters – http://1971671.toastmastersclubs.org/), also offer speaking improvement workshops.
I’m not saying you have to be an annoying cheerleader about your work, pass out candy at your posters and talks, or launch off fireworks. What I am saying is to liven it up a little. This is your life’s work and it’s time to start treating it as such!