Edward van Opstal: Finding my scientific voice
The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the course of six months, Edward van Opstal, Ruchi Masand, Corina White, and Darcie Cook will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every Wednesday for new blog posts!
Current position: 4th year PhD candidate in Biological Sciences
Program start date: 2013
Institution: Vanderbilt University
I often think about the phrase, “if a tree falls in the woods with no one around, does it make a sound?” Applying this to scientists, if no one around can understand my research, is it going to make a difference? This reminds me of when I first started to explain my thesis work to my twin brother three years ago—and understand that this is the guy who invented a secret twin language with me—he didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. (Though to be fair, he is an economist.) Throughout my graduate career at Vanderbilt University, I have used that memory as a strong reminder to discover my scientific voice because, when it comes time to move on in the world, either gracefully or kicking and screaming, my brother will sure know what I do. I’ve been fortunate to have several resources available at Vanderbilt, including the Vanderbilt ASPIRE Program, that have encouraged me to step out of the collegial comfort zone of my lab and put on different hats to communicate science as a teacher, science advocate, and writer. I hope to use this blog to share my journey and the tips I’ve learned on how to communicate science effectively, especially to audiences who have no background in it.
So…Who am I?
I’m Teddy van Opstal, a fourth year graduate student in the Biological Sciences department at Vanderbilt working on microbiome research. My thesis work revolves around understanding how much of the host-associated microbiome is influenced by genetics, rather than environmental factors. In other words, I want to know how the genes in an animal work toward assembling a unique microbial (bacterial, viral, fungal, etc.) community, particularly in the gut.
My route to graduate school started when, after finishing my B.S. in Biochemistry, I took the path less traveled and did a Medical Biotechnology Masters in the Netherlands at Wageningen University. Being half Dutch, this wasn’t quite like jumping into the deep end without floaties, and (thankfully!) the curriculum was taught in English. Interestingly, my program consisted of students from 40 different nationalities, all of whom had previously learned science in slightly different ways. Science communication challenges were a way of life there. Imagine working on a research project where ideas quite literally couldn’t be translated. However, being the American in an English-speaking program, I became very popular when it came time to write papers. There were certainly some long nights during my stints as the group editor where sections of the paper due the next day were sent to me as incoherent words on a page. But, through the frustrating moments, the most important thing my Masters taught me was no matter how infuriating miscommunication can be, you have to work to convey ideas clearly.
What do I hope to accomplish through this blog series?
PhD programs like to pump your head full of scientific knowledge and yet they are in short supply of Science Communication 101 courses. This is a real problem that, fortunately, NIH BEST programs across the U.S. are working to change this. While I’ve published papers and presented my work to colleagues, nothing is quite as difficult as explaining your research to a ten year old or a business exec you met at a networking event, but more on that in future posts. I’ve spent two years creating my own checklist to communicate science effectively. Over the next few months, I will discuss a few of these checklist items and how they have enriched my development as a graduate student.
Until next time, let me finish with one of my favorite forms of communication, poetry:
In graduate school, our goal is science,
We do our work in complete compliance.
But never forget to broaden your views,
The color of science has many hues.