This cute Capuchin monkey is named Rumor.
As the above card states, Rumor invented a really fun game: grab the finger of your best friend and stick it deep inside your eye-sockets for thirty minutes or so, and then do it again tomorrow!
This card is a party favor from the 25th anniversary celebration of the UCLA Capuchin Monkey project, an evening full of power, envy, lust and greed, traditions, trust and treason (just as advertised!).
It took a few years for Rumor’s game to catch on. Strange, I know, you’re thinking that this game would catch on immediately in your group of friends. But, the point is, what if Dr. Perry and her team had showed up to study these monkeys for only two years? A smaller snapshot in time would have provided misleading information about this social tradition. They might have thought these monkeys had always jammed their fingers deep into each other’s eyes and missed that it was the invention of a single individual. They could have missed that this tradition took a few years to catch on and misunderstood how the tradition continued after Rumor’s death. And that’s just one example.
Given the nature of the celebration, the underlying theme to the evening was the importance of long-term studies. The panel discussion at the end of the evening highlighted the unfortunate fact that long-term research is the exception rather than the rule. There are clear reasons for this, perhaps most of all the difficulty of maintaining studies that exceed the length of time for funding cycles, and maintaining a functional family life. Dr. Wright, who spoke about her work with lemurs later in the evening, also shared her difficulties in maintaining her long-term research while confronting political issues in foreign countries.
Congratulations to anthropologist Susan Perry, for her incredible long-term work on Capuchin Monkeys. By the end of her presentation she revealed that her research has featured 567 monkeys and 151 researchers!
I applaud Dr. Perry for her presentation as well, though that she is a good speaker perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise: she studies primates and clearly knows how to engage a room full of them. She traced the evolution of her 25-year project one year at a time and by presenting each year’s shocking new discoveries as newspaper headlines. For example, she disclosed the drama from year 7 with the headline: “Ichabod assassinated: a killing one of their own!”, then the drama of year 10 with an equally shocking headline about infanticide. All in all, interesting night. Thanks also to Dr. John Mitani and Dr. Patricia Wright who spoke following Dr. Perry’s talk to present their work on chimpanzees and lemurs.
I spent a lot of time this summer thinking about my future career and communicating out loud not in English.
Two things to understand about me:
First, I’ve wanted to follow just about every career path imaginable. This means that I fall hard into the category of graduate student who wants a PhD one week but not the next (and on those weeks I daydream about what type of menu I would create for my new food truck business). Second, I am not confident in expressing my thoughts out loud… somehow what I’m thinking, no matter how clear in my head, comes out as jumbled thoughts that maybe express something similar to what I mean.
The time that I spent reflecting left me resigned to the fact that I probably can’t give my all to both the PhD and the food trucking industries at the same time. But I’m okay with that, because what I really want is to incorporate photography and communication into my science career.
Sounds strange, right? I tell you that I am not confident in expressing my thoughts out loud and proceed to tell you that I want to communicate science.
Well, my experiences speaking more French than English this summer reminded me of the importance of being able to communicate despite language barriers. It reminded me that the language spoken around the biology department is more like a regional dialect.
This made me feel okay about the fact that I am a better communicator on paper.
A little story:
In forgetting the French word for pig (porc), and the others not understanding the English word pig, there was nothing left for me to do but to describe it as quickly as possible in the simplest way possible. I managed to say, “the little pink animal with the nose like this [imagine me pushing my nose gently towards my forehead with my pointer finger]”.
I savored the small giggle I got, and then quickly continued the story.
I couldn’t always do this. A few years ago, the conversation would have been frozen. The English word “pig” would have been playing on repeat in my head and I would have said, “never mind” and my story would have been left untold.
A pig is something that is widely recognized, even if the specific term to describe it is spoken in a foreign language. What if my inability to explain something as simple as “pig” had made this story end?
Non-scientists do not not speak our heavy dialect.
An obvious example is the word “theory”. To the general public, theory means a hunch, an idea or speculation. Microsoft Word even gives “belief” as a synonym for “theory”
But there are less obvious examples that we may not think about as often, or ever. For example, phrases that use the word “positive” are misleading:
A “positive trend” means we are headed towards an optimistic future, right?
A “positive feedback” means we received words of praise for our experiments, right?
As scientists, we are well versed in statistics and understand that a positive trend means upward and increasing, not necessarily “good”. We know that a positive feedback is a self-reinforcing brutal cycle, not necessarily a good one.
An inability to translate our science should not prevent our ideas from being exposed. As a young scientist, I can still remember back to my early days in college when I first began to read scientific papers. Those first few papers were always printed and covered in written definitions, the bulk of each paragraph was underlined or highlighted. I used all five colors of highlighter that came in the pack. Now these documents are saved as PDFs all over my computer’s desktop and hard drive. Before, I was just learning the language.
If the public doesn’t understand that they don’t understand our language, we must learn theirs. It takes practice to be good at something. We know how to speak their language, but we need to use it. We can’t continue to use terms like “uncertainty” or “error” in front of non-scientists unless we mean to convey that we made a mistake.
I do think that scientists acknowledge the importance of successfully communicating science to the public (for example, recent lab meeting topics have included conversations about citizen science, the “broader impacts” sections of proposals, structuring elevator pitches for scientists vs. businessmen vs. strangers at parties). I also think that we recognize that the public doesn’t really understand what we do. I mean, some of our stand-alone experiments really can sound ridiculous (see this article). I just think we need to actually practice this by encouraging young scientists to blog, to tweet and to write press releases as often as possible using as little scientific jargon as possible. Thanks to my advisor, Casey, for beginning weekly lab meetings with “soooo… who is going to write a blog post?” Only good can come from this.
Even though I am not the strongest oral communicator I succeeded at effectively communicating in a different language this summer (and in clarifying my career goals). Sometimes it took more words than I needed, sometimes I had to leave out details, but most times I found a way to describe things so that everyone was on the same page.
Even though I don’t remember the ending, I can assure you that everyone who heard my pig story is much better off today.
See Communicating the science of climate change by Sommerville and Hassol for some more examples of scientific terms that have a different meaning for the public and for some well formulated thoughts about science communication.
This post was originally made about a year ago on October 10, 2014 on the Ecoevolab blog (ecoevolab.com). A post from my labmate yesterday linked me to this post, and I was struck by how it still resonates with me.
I’m confident in making the claim that most ecologists have wanderlust. Science progresses because of observation and curiosity; and observation and curiosity are both intrinsic to wanderlust. Sociologists have noted the importance of the term as it sits in opposition to structure and organization. As scientists have been herded indoors to spend more time on administrative tasks and to look for money rather than actually exploring and researching freely outside of “the system” (where most of us feel we truly belong), we have been made to have conversations addressing the importance of stupidity in science, researching efficiently, nurturing our creative genes, getting to know thyself, and feeling overwhelmed as a graduate student.
Recently, after having some of these conversations around our department, I felt as though we kept talking about the same thing. Don’t get me wrong; each of these conversations was unique and constructive in some way (and there are, of course, strategies to independently tackle these problems). But, I kept thinking about the pink sticky note on my desk. Wanderlust has always been a very whimsical and attractive word to me. Yet lately, after these conversations, the last syllable of the word (“lust”) started to trouble me. “Lust” is typically followed by the words “after” or “for” and usually implies that we can’t have it; that it is something we covet.
In her book entitled “Wanderlust, A History of Walking”, Rebecca Solnit writes that “thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented society, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking.”
And there is the problem. Doing nothing but thinking is defensible, but we have to defend ourselves to do it. As Solnit suggests, if we could all do a bit more thinking (real thinking), disguised in an activity that I think we ecologists all innately wish to be doing anyway (walking), I think the issues we spent time discussing can become lesser-issues. For example, on feeling stupid in science: the more I think, the more clueless I feel, and the more comfortable I am with that, the more I feel like I belong in this world of science. Maybe if we all spend more time walking, observing, and thinking, without podcasts or music blaring in our ears, we would all be more willing to accept and embrace the fact that we know very little. Maybe then, grad student morale takes a positive turn, research questions become more creative and interesting… or maybe none of that happens because we don’t come back indoors.
As Solnit writes:
Perhaps walking is best imagined as an ‘indicator species,’ to use an ecologist’s term. An indicator species signifies the health of an ecosystem, and its endangerment or diminishment can be an early warning sign of systemic trouble. Walking is an indicator species for various kinds of freedom and pleasures: free time, free and alluring space, and unhindered bodies.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have what we lust after, a little bit more free time?