Known not only for her ability as a researcher but also for her skill at explaining to both her colleagues and the public what she does, Susan Lindquist was recently awarded Sigma Xi's recognition for outstanding science and science communication, the 2006 William Procter Prize for Scientific Achievement. The prize brings further recognition for Lindquist, a biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, who has built her career studying protein misfolding, its consequences to cells, and its role in diseases such as Alzheimer's and mad cow. Her laboratory was the first to show how prions can self-propagate in a form of protein-only inheritance, and she has used her research platform to communicate that understanding to colleagues and diverse groups of nonscientists. She recently answered three questions from The Scientist about communicating science.
Q: What drives you to make complex...
A: I take great care that the manuscripts we write are accessible to people, not just to the absolute experts - but those outside who might get interested in this field. When I write a paper, I ask myself, "Would a first-year graduate student understand this?" I try to write for that student. When writing papers for Science or Nature and we have to cut out another 1,000 words, that makes things difficult. But a broader audience sees the paper, and it's an opportunity to excite different people about the work. Sometimes we spend so much time on the writing of papers - I'm a real stickler for it - that it slows down the dissemination of our work. But, on the other hand, our papers have had higher impact because of it.
Q: You go beyond just reaching other scientists, though, speaking to many kinds of public groups such as high school teachers, undergraduates, business leaders.
A: I think the absolute revolution that has occurred in the biological sciences over the past half-century is the greatest intellectual revolution in the history of mankind. I feel extraordinarily lucky to be a part of it. The general public doesn't appreciate the full breadth and impact of the kinds of things we are doing. Things that are around the corner will have a huge impact on people's lives, huge medical benefits, changes in the way our planet works - from bioterrorism to environmental pollution to changing the oceans. People need to understand how life shapes the planet and how the planet shapes life. I'm speaking next month to a group of women who work in business and industry. The public is going to make a big difference in issues like stem cells, where big decisions will be made. The public needs to be engaged, interested, and educated.
Q: Can effective communication be learned, or is it a gift?
A: It's a mixture of both. Some people are more verbal, some are better at abstract reasoning. We all have different innate talents. But there's no doubt in my mind that communication is a craft, not a mystery, that can be improved upon. Different lecture styles can be successful. Speak directly to your audience, speak to their level, engage them, do not overwhelm them with details. A good presentation gives the audience the big picture and a flavor of how scientific inquiry works.