Last week, I attended a workshop on science communication organized by the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at NYU. The panelists discussed how storytelling can help scientists and scholars communicate their work to an audience of non-experts.
The first thing I learned is that science communication is a broad field. It does not only apply to reaching out to the public, but also to non-experts such as policy makers, grant program officers and colleagues in other disciplines. Second, I was taught that if you reach out, you have to put emotion in your story. How does your research experience make you feel? Does it make you happy? Does it make you sad? Why do you want to communicate your work? Third, I learned that social sciences and humanities have a hard time telling the story of their research. They work in isolation from other sciences and ‘the real world’, high in their ivory tower. They are less likely to reach out and when they do, they often lapse into disciplinary jargon.
Being a historian using social-scientific methodologies, I very much opposed to this conclusion until I experienced in real life what the panelists meant. A couple of days ago, I got caught up in a conversation with a theoretical physicist working on the Higgs boson particle. I asked him about his research and if he could tell me why I have been hearing so much about that particular particle lately. A practiced storyteller, he used metaphors and jokes to explain what his research is about. I got a good grasp of what he is doing, as well as why.
Then it was my turn to explain what my research is about. “Well, my field is what we call food studies, which is the study of society through the lens of food. My particular area of focus is street food; I investigate how interested actors represent food peddlers and if different representations translate into different uses of the city.” He looked at me with a funny expression on his face, shook his head and asked me to break it down into graspable pieces. Right then and there I finally understood what the science communication panelists had been talking about. I had to tell the story of my research, so I told the story of Mohammed who has a halal cart in Manhattan.
Mohammed has no other source of income besides his street commerce to provide for his family, and his everyday struggles are manifold. On the one hand, he is stigmatized by, among others, Business Improvement Districts (i.e. business owners who invest in neighborhood development) who claim his cart is a threat to public health and life, and who want him gone. On the other hand, he is appreciated by many taxi drivers, blue-collar workers, and students who turn to him for a cheap lunch. Mohammed’s story tells us what possibilities immigrants have at their disposal to make a living for themselves, it tells us how urban communities live together or not, and it tells us where urban dwellers on a budget find food they can afford. Mohammed’s story gives abstract concepts like immigration and labor a human face, and translates these concepts to an audience of non-experts. “I see,” the theoretical physicist said, “now I understand what it is about.”
After my encounter with the theoretical physicist, I read up on science communication and learned that there are many ways to reach out to non-experts. We can write and talk, tweet and Facebook, Instagram and Vimeo; we can embrace the growing possibilities generated by digital humanities. I will definitely explore those channels, but what I really want to do is get away from my computer screen and talk to people in the street, in coffee shops and at community-building events. I want to tell them the story of Mohammed.
Illustration courtesy of the author.