27 June 2012
I study cancer. Except, of course, that I don’t.
But if you’re a friend or family member of mine, there are pretty good odds that I’ve told you that I do. Before you judge me too harshly, let me assure you that I’m not a con artist using the prestige of a cancer researcher to attend gala dinners. Rather, my reason for lying about what I study has a perfectly logical, age-old explanation: laziness.
What I actually study is the relationship between the coding sequence of a gene and its rate of translation by ribosomes into a protein product, as well as the evolutionary pressures that shape and constrain this relationship. I have a terrible elevator pitch.
The great majority of the population has no idea what a ribosome is. Or that proteins are the effector molecules that carry out virtually all of the vital processes of life. This poses a problem for me as a biologist, when in the middle of Christmas dinner or at a smoke-filled karaoke bar I get asked, “what do I do?”. Biology. Bacteria. DNA. How about them Yankees? Cancer.
Understanding your audience is one of the first rules of both writing, and speaking. Or if it isn’t, it should be. Most graduate students aren’t taught how to adapt their sales-pitch to a ‘general’ audience. Add in the constraint of brevity and most of us resort to superficial descriptions of our research that everyone will understand but that doesn’t begin to describe the actual work that we do. Hence: cancer.
Answering the question: ‘what do you do?’ without resorting to the extremes of jargon or disease related vagueries is a challenge that all scientists should accept. Even short conversations in a crowded bar can lead to academic growth as we take the time to understand our research enough to communicate it clearly and concisely. The added benefit of course is that in doing so we also get to convince people, whose taxes we rely on, the breadth and importance of research.
And in case you were wondering:
I study the language of DNA.
I study how the language of DNA affects the production of molecules within the cell.
I study how the language of DNA can predict the production of molecules within the cell.
I study how the language of DNA developed over evolutionary time and how we can possibly exploit the grammar of this language to better target disease and and synthesize pharmaceuticals.
It’s not perfect, but I’m working on it. And I’m sure glad that a lot of other people are studying cancer in the meantime.
— Adam Hockenberry
Your comment will be moderated by the webmaster. Fields with "*" are required.