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No such thing as a stupid question

15 Aug, 2012
ilovebacteria.com

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Just because she is a scientist, Kathryn Lougheed is always getting asked odd questions. So she decided to share her answers.

“Why does asparagus make my wee smell?,” asked my boyfriend hopefully, as if my one year of a microbiology PhD somehow qualified me to answer such an important question. And, like a parent realising that they can trick their kids into eating vegetables if they carve them up to look like tiny animals, this question taught me one very important thing: most people who claim to not be interested in science actually find it fascinating if you don’t tell them what it is that they’re learning.

Spurred on by my success in force-feeding the unsuspecting boyfriend some suspect science, I became unstoppable. Why is the sky blue? Why do paper cuts hurt more than anything else in the world? Will my eyeballs really fall out if I sneeze with my eyes open? There was science everywhere I looked, but no-one else seemed to even notice! So in 2002 I decided to make a website, ilovebacteria.com, describing the science of everyday life to people without a scientific background. Sure, I knew nothing about web design, writing, or (let’s be completely honest here) the actual science of everyday life. But I had a holiday allowance to use up and a PhD studentship that didn’t pay enough to support actual holidays.

The first incarnation of ilovebacteria.com was a declaration of war against the English language, yet it quickly garnered a loyal following of people fascinated by my cobbled together answers to simple scientific questions, DIY science experiments, advice for young people looking for a career in science, profiles of killer diseases narrated by the infectious agents responsible, and illustrations of anthropomorphic microbes saying deep and meaningful things such as “bacteria are your friends”. I’ve always put an emphasis on making the content fun and lighthearted, figuring that if I can get people interested then they can look up the more serious facts on Wikipedia or other reliable sources!

Ten years later, I’m a practicing scientist but I still love writing about science. And for the next four weeks I’ll be taking part in a British Science Association Media Fellowship at Nature News, learning about how the professionals go about making scientific research accessible to the general public. Journalists have such a huge responsibility in picking out the best bits of research and dishing it up in a way that the public can digest. But we only have to look at some of the big scientific controversies of recent years – GM crops or stem cell research, for example – to see that sometimes it goes wrong and misunderstandings end up undermining the public’s trust in the scientific community. I work with so many people who are hugely passionate about their work, yet something is clearly getting lost in translation when science ventures out of the lab into the mainstream media.

I often hear my fellow scientists bemoaning the lack of public knowledge of science as the root of the problem. But this seems vaguely patronising to me, and makes discussion of scientific matters a very one-way conversation in which ivory tower ‘boffins’ (thanks for that title, tabloid media) lecture the uninspired masses. Maybe working scientists can bridge the gap between the headlines and their research not by trying to educate the public or expecting them to learn every single fact before daring to have an opinion, but by attempting to share some of our love for science in a way that non-scientists can engage with. Then maybe people will actually want to hear what we have to say when it comes to the important stuff.

I’ll be blogging about my experiences in the wonderful world of science journalism over the next few weeks at germzoo.blogspot.com for anyone who is interested in what it’s like to swap a pipette for a notepad.

Kathryn Lougheed

Dr Kathryn Lougheed is a research associate at Imperial College London. She works on a Wellcome Trust-funded research studying latent tuberculosis.

Find out more about the British Science Association’s Media Fellowships.

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