Public engagement starts with your (distant) peers

I don’t enjoy going to large scientific conferences.

  1. They usually cost a lot of money, both in terms of registration fees as well as the exorbitant hotel rates at international conference centres. There are better ways to spend a research budget.
  2. There are so many people to engage with, so there is just enough time to slap hands – but not to engage in a deeper conversation or even think together. I may instead just go to a random cocktail party.
  3. Maybe I’m exceptionally slow and intellectually inflexible, but there are only that many talks I can listen to or posters to look at before I get tired and mentally digress.

In fact, I visited the last bigger conference with more than two hundred researchers long before I had my own group. These days, I prefer to send students, and if it is just for them to experience the atmosphere. If I really want to have a good scientific exchange, I try to go to small, focussed meetings with no more than fifty participants and plenty of time to juggle ideas. Or I organise them myself, such as the Bertinoro functional genomics meeting in 2011 or a tracheal system meeting at the Royal Society earlier this year.

My fear of rejection leaves many findings unpublished.

There is something else, and I’m probably foolish to admit this, because it leaves me stand as a mediocre envious scientist. At big scientific conferences, most people are only interested in the work of a couple international superstars. They get all the attention, all the credit, and if you haven’t published in one of the big journals recently, nobody gives a crap about who you are or what you do. Now I don’t need to pay a ridiculous registration fee and travel around the world (which I hate anyway!) just to get the same negative vibe of insufficiency I can have for free just looking at the rejection letters for jobs/grants/papers in my inbox.

Speaking of which… I have an entire stack of half-finished projects on my computer that I have never bothered writing up – for fear of rejection. Most of them were inspired by spontaneous decisions to follow up on things that landed on my students’ scrap, with the vague hope that they may make a conclusive supplementary material when they publish. These results aren’t bad, but they are usually just small findings that don’t really make an entire story or that are not strong enough on their own.

BA_the_UB_of_ScienceSo that’s my attitude: Science is like running. Many people do it. Only a small elite of athletes make it to the Olympics. But do you know many more sprinters than Usain Bolt? So, yes, you can find me in the ‘olympic stadium’, and I don’t mean watching, but only a few people are going to remember me. Hence, in most cases I avoid shouting “hey, look at me”, doing the famous pose.

Recent learning: Pitch your results to the right audience!

I recently had one of those small results. Briefly, I looked at the correlation of fly phenotypes and human disease data. The computational biologist in my appreciates that there are huge problems with this and many people have worked systematically on the creation of disease ontologies and the cross-referencing between human and animal model data, the mapping of orthologous relationships between genes, etc. Furthermore, the disease data itself is not straightforward, and without a medical background and epidemiological knowledge, it can at times be difficult to tell different things apart. However, just taking the most naive approach, I gained a little bit of insight into the biology of lung disease and how this compares to the Drosophila tracheal system. Normally I would consider this of anecdotal value and not worth publishing, just imagining the referees’ comments  along the lines of ”I don’t understand why these authors haven’t tried methods x, y and z as everyone in the field“. However, for a little Drosophila PR and as I thought of medics as “the public”, I had agreed to speak at a lung disease conference and here I presented that work. The response was exceptionally positive. These people didn’t care that I had not used the latest and greatest methods in bioinformatics, but simply applied some logical reasoning and basic statistics. In a way, I presented a review of their knowledge from the perspective of a fly researcher, and that was perceived as very useful information.

I conclude that pitching your results to the right audience is critical. And that going to conferences and workshops that are not in your immediate field of research can be extremely valuable in the assessment of our own work. You are not going to be judged on the basis of your standing in your own field, but how useful and novel your findings are to that particular community. It is not the absolute degree of novelty that is going to get you heard, but the accessibility of your research to people with a rather different background. Public engagement starts with your peers!

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