Thursday, December 30, 2010

Speaking of Research

Helen Kelly
In conversations about biomedical research at your facility, you can influence a positive view by reporting results as good science. A practical framework for that purpose is the one that Angélique Bordey uses when teaching and training graduate and medical students at Yale University. Her framework forms a handy checklist when planning conference talks, reporting output to press and publicity agents, preparing project proposals, and responding to members of the public who question the clinical, ethical, and financial value of biomedical investigations.
Is it a Good Question?
When summarising a project’s central question, mention what you’ll learn and then focus on an impact statement: what can science do with the information. For example, consider a project about some aspect of how the brain works— like understanding cognition and how this relates to cognitive deficits during the course of a disorder or can be translated into repair. When speaking about it, concentrate on how this project will move the field forward—for example learning to repair the spinal cord or damaged brain tissue—or how it opens a new field of investigation.
Is it the Right Investigation?
Set out the logic. For example, mutation in certain molecules may lead to epilepsy, so it may be very important to understand how this mutation affects the function of this molecule or even try to understand what the function of this molecule is in brain development or circuit activity. (In this instance, you’d want to confirm that different species share this molecule. Few would be interested if it occurs only in, say fruit flies or C. elegans.)
Is it a Leading-edge Experimental Design?
Once you’ve spoken about the good question and the right investigation, mention techniques—and collaboration, if any. (Some of the best research is collaborative, as few labs are comprehensively equipped.) Speak about the best techniques available—those used in your lab and techniques collaborators use. Some techniques, such as genetic manipulation in vivo, are associated with trends in science and may be familiar to many and varied audiences.
Is it Quality Data?
You may wish to mention accuracy: for example, how do you know that the electrophysiological recordings are correct? Of greater import is quality and interpretation. How did you/will you evaluate the data? What qualifications did you apply, if any? Can you validate your interpretation using a second method? What other experiments, if any, could you perform to validate the data?
Animations can engage audiences and improve retention; and, realistic rather than schematic images grab attention and inspire questions. Here is a bird’s eye view of each topic, along with references for those who wish to take a closer look.
Critics of PowerPoint rightly claim that most PPT animations are a vain attempt to gain audience attention. However, University of Toronto Professor Danton O’Day, a highly regarded cell biology investigator, skilled animator, and composer, has developed a way to make full teaching animations with PowerPoint1. Biology students who viewed an animation illustrating dynamic processes, he found, obtained significantly higher test scores than those who saw static graphics of the event. (See Dr O’Day’s Human Cell Biology course-related animations online2.)
Based on his and other research, we know that people retain significantly more information when they view narrated animations than when there is no narrator.
O’Day has identified components of an effective animation—many pertinent for professionals speaking of research design and findings.
  • Match the images to audience’s experience level.
  • Streamline by including only relevant content.
  • Set explanatory text adjacent to the animation.
  • Use the same terms in talk as used in text adjacent to the animation.
  • Speak conversationally about the animation.
  • Point out specific items important for understanding, learning and remembering.
Four representations of one and the same protein.
Still Images
Professor Ijsbrand Kramer, a prominent European cell biologist at the University of Bordeaux, tested a longheld assumption that simplified, schematic drawings would make science more accessible. Not so, he learned (Figure 1). Most people, even those who seem disengaged, respond enthusiastically to realistic images, and are inspired by more—rather than less— complex images.
“It was an eye opener”, Dr. Kramer said. “When images are realistic and even complex, people are more communicative, more inquisitive and work harder to understand the science.” However, the findings suggest that when you want people to understand and recall a big picture—such as the translational activities in neuronal communication— a schematic is more powerful.
  1. O'Day, Danton H. "Animated Cell Biology: A Quick and Easy Method for Making Effective, High-Quality Teaching Animations." CBE-Life Sciences Education. 5. (2--6): 255-63.
  2. “Human Cell Biology - BIO315”. Lecture Animations - Fall 2010. University of Toronto at Mississauga, 2010.

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