I’m a bad science blogger. I said I was going to post once a week and was sticking to it pretty well. Then I had a busy week, and then another. And now almost one month later, here I am. But I’m ready to get back on the blogging wagon. Biotweeps asked “What questions are you commonly asked about your work and/or interests?” on twitter (definitely read the replies to the tweet). This is a topic near and dear to my heart, I come from non-scientific stock and consequently get a lot of questions about my work.
The three questions I get asked the most are:
- So do you catch the birds with a butterfly net?
- How will your research benefit me?
- Why don’t you call home more often?
The answer to number three is the easiest to give: Sorry mom, I get busy and focus on the task at hand, plus the phone works both ways. The answer to number one is also fairly easy: Hahaha, that’s only the tenth time you’ve asked me that *eye twitch*. We actually catch birds using mist nets- they’re mesh net that the birds fly into and get tangled up, and I remove them to take measurements. No running around here! The answer the question number two, it’s something that doesn’t come as easy as sassy reply to my mom or a rehearsed speech about my field work. It’s an answer that has changed over time.
When I was younger, relatively speaking-I’m talking my first two years of college, my answer to “How will your research benefit me” reflected my immaturity. It used to be a rather flippant “Oh it isn’t” accompanied with a snarky smile. And really, that wasn’t a good way to answer the question. I feel like scientists don’t always have the greatest rep with the public- some people think we’re weirdos stuck in the lab all down babbling jargon like no one’s business and looking down on all the other non-scientists. So a smarmy non-answer to an important question isn’t really doing much to improve how the public views scientists. Posing the answer in a stand-offish joking sort of way was also a defense- even I wasn’t sure how my research would benefit anyone, and I would rather make a joke and come off looking ass-ish than get caught with my pants down trying to piece together an answer I didn’t have.
But, like a fine wine (or a cheap wine if you’re a broke grad student like myself) I matured in the last two years of my undergrad. My interests were behavioral and I did feather work, so I tried to make my answer about how knowing more about life history is important! Scientists want to know more about the world around us, which is a good benefit, and yeah, that’s what I’m doing with birds! For my feather work, I was trying to convey the message that feathers could be used to indicate the health of the bird, which is good for the birds! (Although of you read about my feather work, you know that isn’t the case exactly) Still, I wasn’t really answering the question, I was still giving non-answers. This time at least I was trying to convey to people why my research was important to the bird community. I still couldn’t think of benefits to a non-scientific community, but at least I was trying to teach people instead of acting like a prick.
My newest iteration of the answer to “How will your research benefit me?” is based on something a new graduate student uses to answer that question himself. We were talking about getting questions from non-scientific/non-ecologist family members about why what we do is important and why we do what we do. Part of his answer was something along the lines of “My research supports the underpinnings of the world you know”. I liked that because that’s a line that’ll turn heads and encourage people to ask questions to learn more. Based on his answer, as well as what I’ve learned since entering the scientific field has lead to this answer:
My research supports the underpinnings of the world you know. Birds play an important role in the environment: they spread seeds, maintain insect/rodent populations, we eat them, they can indicate changes in habitat, and they have cultural/spiritual/emotional value. While you may not be getting any direct benefits from my work on birds, what I do now may help other scientists in the future. Knowing how a bird lives and what it does now is valuable for comparisons to be made to future populations. If their behavior or habits change in the future, what I did may aid in determining the factors that caused the change (climate, human activities, etc.).
I finally have an answer to “How will your research benefit me?”. In my head, I want to include more details about the ecological impacts that birds have and more ways that changes will impact people if bird change, but brevity is the soul of having people not lose focus halfway through a explanation. The answer is also open enough and hits number of points, so people have opportunities to ask more questions depending on what they’re interested in. Obviously, my answer may change again as I go further along in my career. My research interests may change or I may switch to studying another organism. At least now I have a good framework to answer an important question and that engages with the non-scientist public.
How do you answer “How will your research benefit me?” when people ask?