The most important step in science: Communicating your results

Blog originally posted on the GLOBE Scientists' Blog:

I remember in high school that I liked science and math much more than my grammar and literature classes.  I recall thinking that if I pursued a career in science, I wouldn’t have to worry about reading and writing and I could really focus on the things I most enjoyed.  Boy was I wrong, and quite ignorant to boot!  In my scientific career, I read and write all of the time, and have come to really value and appreciate these forms of communication.  I read journal articles to learn about what other scientific research is being done, and I write my own articles to communicate the results of my research—one of the most important steps in the scientific process!  Why is it so important?  Consider this philosophical expression:

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

This expression illustrates at least one reason why, as a scientist, it is so important to communicate the results of our research.  The scientific research we do often can have profound impacts on our field of science and on society, and yet if we do not share our results, how will anyone ever be able to benefit from the results of that hard work?  Moreover, by communicating research results with colleagues in the scientific community, we allow ourselves to receive credit for doing the work, connect with others doing similar work thereby leading to new collaborations, and establish our results within the scientific knowledge base that future research will be built upon.

There are several ways that scientists communicate our results, including written reports and scientific journal publications, and by giving presentations to our colleagues and the public.  One popular venue for scientists to present to colleagues is at scientific conferences.  These are often organized around a common theme, span several days, and include both oral presentations (“talks”) and poster presentations of scientific research results.

Photo of GLOBE students presenting a poster
GLOBE students presenting a poster presentation at the 2012 GLOBE Student Research Exhibition.

I am currently preparing to attend a scientific conference next week in which I will be presenting some of my research group’s latest results.  Most conferences I attend allow only 15 minutes per oral presentation (and it is recommended you only speak for 12 minutes to allow time for questions), so it is often a challenge to condense your research results into such a short period of time.  It really makes you step back and take a look at what the most important aspects of your project are, and then only talk about those few key points.  For my upcoming conference, however, I have been given 30 minutes to speak.  While I don’t have to worry about focusing my presentation to the point that it can be presented in 15 minutes, I do still have to consider that if I present too much information in that half hour time period my audience will not take away the key points either.  Therefore, I still have to focus my talk to a few key points, and then I can just provide more in depth support for those key findings.

Besides considering how much time I have for my presentation, and what my key message will be, I also have to consider who my audience will be as I prepare my presentation.  At this upcoming conference, I will be speaking to a pretty specialized group of people, however not all of them are scientists, so I will need to define specialized terms and concepts in my presentation.  Moreover, I will have to also really explain up front why my work will matter to them, so that they understand why learning about my results is important to their interests.

Photo of me giving a seminar presentation
Photo of me giving a seminar presentation.

Communicating the results of my scientific research is a very important aspect of my job as a scientist, and one that I do not take lightly.  If I fail to take into account things like the time I am given to present, what my key points are and why they are important, and who my audience is, I will not be successful in communicating what I view as valuable information.   Therefore, I start preparing my presentations early, I practice my presentations, and I also seek feedback from my colleagues to make sure my presentations are clear and help my audience learn something new.   This way I can feel confident that the science that I love so much is really making the impact that it deserves.

Suggested activity:  In your next scientific research project, make sure you communicate your results either in a written report or presentation.  GLOBE provides students with guidance for writing scientific reports, as well as opportunities to present and share their research projects.  For example, the GLOBE Virtual Student Conference is a great venue for students from all over the world to present their research projects!  For more tips on giving scientific presentations, see the GLOBE Student Climate Research Campaign archived webinar entitled “Scientist Skills: Presenting your results”.


More Blog Entries