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Leon, Yonis, Diana and their classmates file into the room. They take a seat on the chairs that have been neatly lined up in front of the screen for them. I welcome them with a smile, but I can’t help wondering what they’re thinking. Are they looking forward to our meeting, or are they impatiently waiting for the next hour to pass so they can move on to their much more important weekend plans? Surely, they must be excited about this unconventional school day and curious to hear what I have to tell them… Right?
‘Excuse me’, one of them asks. ‘What is the WiFi password?’
I groan inwardly. This promises to be the worst day of my life. I can already see myself desperately trying to make eye contact with these social media-absorbed teenagers, as they flood their Instagram accounts with photos of me that have been tagged #scienceisboring.
My name is Federica and I am a scientist, a molecular biologist to be precise. I usually spend my days playing with cells and DNA in a lab, but I’ve hung up my lab coat and pipettes today and left the comfort of my bench to meet a bunch of students. It’s ForskarFredag or European Researchers’ Night, the day in which scientists all over Europe step out into the world to engage with the public, and I am in Stockholm’s Vetenskapens Hus, the House of Science, as one of Karolinska Institutet’s volunteer representatives. In front of me, twenty or so high-school students await my lecture on CRISPR – a new technology to rewrite genes that has revolutionised molecular biology, and that I think everyone should know about.
And I am incredibly nervous.
I feel as nervous as a young Masters’ student at her first-ever public presentation, which is extremely silly, considering that (a) I am extremely familiar with the topic and (b) I stood up in front of audiences countless times before, audiences a lot fiercer than this one! Over the years, I’ve had to undergo judgment and scrutiny by university professors, PhD committees, job employers… My research – and, I dare say, my entire purpose in life – has often been challenged and questioned by competent and experienced people. So why on earth am I now afraid of these young, inexperienced schoolchildren?
I have an incredible responsibility today, and I feel it there, hanging heavy over my head. If I play my cards well, I might inspire these children to become the scientists of tomorrow. But if I do it wrong, I might scare them away from science forever.
Inspiration is such an important part of life. To this day, I still remember the rapture with which I listened to my high school science teacher as she described the power of genetic engineering.
Inspiration is such an important part of life. To this day, I still remember the rapture with which I listened to my high school science teacher as she described the power of genetic engineering. That lecture inspired me to become the scientist I am today. Over the years, part of that fascination got smothered by the daily grind of repetitive lab work and the stress that often accompanies a scientific career, but we should never forget what made us become scientists in the first place – the passion for knowledge, the fascination with the world, the exhilarating excitement of discovery. And that – I tell myself – is what I need to convey to these students today.
But how do I do that?
Well, there are two fundamental lessons I learned over the years and that I try to stick to when I explain science to non-scientists – the imperatives of the science communicator, if you will.
Simplify, simplify, simplify!
Lesson one: strip science to its bare essentials! There is no room for complex jargon and specialised language when you are trying to explain your research to your grandparents or neighbours, that kind of language is best restricted to our theses and manuscripts.
‘RNA-guided endonuclease for precision gene editing’? No, gene scissors.
‘Microbial adaptive immune system’? No, weapons bacteria use to fight enemies.
We scientists strive to be as exact and specific as possible and it pains us to be less than perfect, but there is no way we will keep people’s attention if we drown them in hard-to-grasp, technical big words.
Liven it up!
Lesson two: add some spice! Science does not have to be as sterile and cold as the protocols we use. If we inject life and passion in the stories we tell, those colourful details will pique people’s interest and want them to know more. After all, everyone likes a good story – that’s how human knowledge was transmitted for centuries! That doesn’t mean we have to be as versed in the art of words as William Shakespeare. But we must strive to present science, rather than as a sterile list of facts and figures, as a tale of hard-working dedicated people, with a profound infatuation for knowledge, who are behind those facts and figures. Those extra tidbits of information about scientists’ lives reveal the human nature of science, its fears and aspirations, and make the difference between a mediocre account that will soon be forgotten, and a truly inspiring one that will have people coming back for more. After all, what are scientists other than regular human beings? Ordinary people with an extraordinary job, as the ForskarFredag slogan goes.
So, I take a deep breath, push my fears aside and embrace my responsibility.
Over the next hour, the students forget about the WiFi entirely and engage in a lively exchange with me. I start by telling them my story. I tell them how at their age I was enthralled by the idea that we could tinker with genes to cure disease. I show them a picture of my beautifully chaotic hometown of Naples, which I left to pursue a career in science. I reminisce about the fun and intense years I spent in elegant Vienna, where I met smart, interesting people and studied how genes are switched on and off. I describe my personal history with CRISPR too. I tell them how it used to take me years to engineer a simple gene modification that nowadays only requires a few months!
The students are smart and well prepared. As we delve into the details of the technology and the ethical implications of being able to rewrite genes with ease, they start shooting questions my way, some of which provocative and unexpected. We all laugh heartily when one of them asks if CRISPR can be used to create a superhero with red eyes, but I do my best to answer each one of their questions, including the most unconventional ones. Suddenly, the time is up. We were so absorbed by the discussion that we barely noticed there is another class waiting outside. So we assemble for a group photo, step out of the classroom and then all go our separate ways – the students are off to other ForskarFredag activities, while I head back to my cells and pipettes.
Now, I don’t expect to have convinced them all to become scientists. But if Leon, Yonis and Diana go back to their parents tonight and tell them what an interesting day they had, how cool and inspiring scientists are, how wonderful this thing called CRISPR is and how they should learn about science too because it will affect the choices they make in life… well then, I will have won my battle.
And science too.
/Federica Santoro, postdoctoral scientist at Karolinska Institutet
Federica Santoro is a postdoctoral scientist at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden’s leading university for medical education and research. Before moving to Sweden in 2013, she studied medical biotechnology in Italy and completed a PhD in molecular biology in Austria. Her current research focuses on stem cells and heart development. Federica also has an interest in science communication. In the autumn of 2016, she took a break from the lab to work as a science journalist for the RadioScience podcast.