Monday, January 5, 2009

How To: Give a Tour of Your Lab

So, you have a 6-color FACS machine, an industrial-size centrifuge, and three hundred cages of morbidly obese mice. What fun are all these fancy tools (and freaky animals) if you can’t show them off once in a while? Actual science, you say?! Perhaps. But, for the politically-oriented, you may want to take one day off to display your whirligig tools and experiments in all their glory.
Giving tours of your research lab to politicians and other stakeholders can bolster popular enthusiasm for your line of work, improve understanding of the societal impact, and convince others to keep the money flowing.

I guess this would fall under the “improving public understanding of science” category, which some science communicators bemoan as outdated. While “deficits in public knowledge” may not in fact be “the central culprit driving societal conflict over science,” I think Sarah Palin’s comments on fruit fly research shows that the understanding of science on the part of policy makers does matter a great deal. So, here’s how to get started:

  • Decide who to invite

  • Plan your message

  • Show off your stuff!

  • Follow up

1. Decide who to invite, and when: In the world of politics, timing is everything. Is there an upcoming vote on legislation affecting science and research? Note: it’s true that science is often unpredictable, and sometimes you can’t plan for crises that must be dealt with. It may be hard, but try not to hold a tour on the same day that (to choose some completely random examples) you hear chirping noises coming from the hallway because your experimental chick embryos accidentally hatched; a grad student just realized he left the key samples for his thesis out of the fridge overnight; or you experience a massive chemical spill.

Also think about whether you want to target local, state or federal, politicians. When I worked in a research lab at MGH in Boston, our PI (that’s principle investigator, for all you lay-people) gave a tour to Gov. Patrick’s posse in coordination with the introduction of a new Life Sciences Initiative which he hoped to get passed in the state legislature. The tour barely skimmed the surface of ongoing experiments, but it gave staffers a chance to see first hand the top-notch, cutting edge science they fund.

2. Plan your message: Know your audience, and know what they’re interested in. You can have your oo’s and ahh’s making fluorescent colored flames or creating frothing dry-ice buckets, but in the end your visitors should have a clear understanding of what you do, how it benefits society, and what you need from them.

3. Show off your work: But make sure to spend enough time explaining. Your visitors must feel comfortable asking questions of you and your colleagues. You won’t be able to teach them all of modern biology in an afternoon, but if they leave feeling completely baffled, then your time was spent in vain. You should also think ahead of time about the message you want your visitors to take away—namely, how your work relates to greater society.

4. Follow up: Always send a thank you note to your visitor for taking time to learn about what you do. In a follow up email or phone call you can also provide resources for further information, or initiate an ongoing conversation about relevant policy.

No comments:

Post a Comment