Yeah yeah I know, “science performer” sounds hilarious, but let me explain what I’m talking about.
Doing science, or being a scientist, is not just about intelligence or raw brain power. As important is imagination to work out new approaches or see new links, tenacity to see your ideas and projects through to the end to realise the results, perspective to be able to step back and wonder the hell whether what you’re doing fits into the bigger picture, and the ability to communicate all that you’ve done to a wider audience (be that fellow science practioners or those you results might affect) so that what you’ve done actually makes a difference.
These are all skills common to many walks of life. You’ve got to be tenacious to succeed in the music industry, able to communicate well to be a good politician, and you need imagination to teach people what they themselves don’t think they can learn. All these walks of life may in fact use a bit of being a scientist when they do their thing. For instance, working out “what works” in the recording studio, in the class room, or when making policies will require some trial and error and testing things out, which is essentially what science is all about
Whats more, many of those things the music artist, politician or teacher does day-to-day are in fact very useful to a scientist in their daily workings. We have to teach others, and ourselves, what we have done and why we have done it, to keep collaborative projects moving. We’ve got to reach compromises with funding bodies and different supervisors or collaborators to get stuff done while keeping everyone happy. And we’ve got to get out there and show off our work, to get noticed so we can get a job or an invite to a conference to allow ourselves to progress in our careers. This means, and perhaps you may start to see where this post is going, I think we can really learn from all these people. We can watch and learn from how they go about their business, and then attempt to apply it to what we do, to make us that bit more effective.
Now I’m not going to be getting all Kardashian on you with daily naked selfies (#liberated indeed), but there are definitely some things we can do. For instance, in “How I escaped my certain fate” Stewart Lee has talked about how he would intentionally lose the room during comedy gigs, or play parts of the room off against each other, in order to make the crescendo of a performance that much more triumphant. Can that level of interaction, dare I say manipulation, be brought to science communication talks, at conferences or to the public, in order to give your talks the greatest impact? I think I would be more likely to remember a talk that really pushed me around.
Teachers do this already, asking questions of their students to get the synapses firing and so their audience more focused. I have seen a bare handful of talks at conferences where the speaker asked a question of the audience. Twice this has been Laurent Keller, who I’ve also seen exhort graduate students to ignore their supervisors while standing on a table (at the closing address of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology’s 2015 meeting no less). So maybe he is a bit of an outlier. But I certainly remember his talks.
On a related note, I read lots of books about sport and sports people (which has inspired other posts), including “A fighters mind” by Sam Sheridan. In this he talks a lot about the mind-set of great fighters, what sets them apart from good but not great fighters, and how the success affects them. One of the keys things is focus. Not just having focus: eyes fixed on an ultimate prize, but the ability to get into a focused state of mind come the sound of the bell. This lets them enact game plans or respond to changing situations better that lesser combatants, and ultimately brings them greater, consistently greater, levels of performance and so success. Now I want that. Success yes, but also simply to maximise my talent, which is by no means sufficient on its own to carry me along.
So can we, as scientists, do some of the things that elite athletes do to improve their performance, or is it a different kettle of fish? It could be quite different, the mind-set to unconsciously do the right thing when the opponent arrows out a left jab could very well be very different to the one that is required to steer oneself through the minefield of poor study designs and illogical thinking to arrive at a scientific study that really cuts the mustard. But perhaps not. Can you train yourself to be more imaginative, to be better at seeing the big picture, to be better at communicating? I think the answer is certainly “Yes”. Practising techniques such as Mindfullness to enhance how you think (or perhaps not), or trying to emulate those we think give great talks to improve our own, or simply having a better diet can all allow us to function as scientists more effectively.
Perhaps then we get out there and “perform”, be that at conferences, when planning experiments or writing papers, we will be better for it.
Perhaps I will try some of these things. I definitely try and eat healthily, mainly to keep my body healthy, but also with the suspicion that it is good for my mind as well. And I’d love to try some of the things that Stewart Lee does, like control the audience in talks to bring them with you on more than just a presentation of some research. Perhaps I will even practice meditation to achieve intense focus more easily. At least to begin with, I can start asking questions like Laurent Keller does.
So, what do you do to make yourself better at what you do?