Researcher Life: The Soapbox Science Experience

On first of June 2018, I had the pleasure of standing on a soapbox, under the bright sun and blue sky, in the middle of Berlin, to talk about my research along with 11 other fantastic women in Science! The hour just flew by and before I knew it, I was sitting on the grass, content, with a smile on my face.

(For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, check out the awesome work Soapbox Science is doing to promote women in science and make their work approachable to the public.)

A presentation for Soapbox Science, just like any other presentation, goes through its phases of preparation. My journey started slowly with an application in February, a confirmation in March, and then quickly escalated with a Skype training in April. In this post, I’ll try and retrospect about how I prepared for my Soapbox Science talk.

Stuck in the ppt Box

I have presented many times, to different audiences – experts in my field, experts from others fields, clinicians not engaged in research, clinicians engaged in research, participants, patients, parents of patients, social workers. In all of these presentations though I could always present my work on ppt, in an official setting. Even in the most informal case, I had the possibility of taking my audience into my lab and showing them what my set up and data looks like. For Soapbox Science, I had to imagine a presentation without a digital visual aid. No graphs, no diagrams, no tables and no sacred p-values! What’s more, I even got a volunteer! I had an actual human being who could help me facilitate the crowd…but how do I use this resource? What resources could compensate my tech-savvy reproductions?

Getting the Jargon Right

As a part of the Soapbox Science training, they send you to this website where you can write anything you want, for example, an explanation of your research work, and it points out any words that are not a part of the top ten hundred words used in the English language. The following examples are me trying to explain intra-subject variability using the top ten hundred words in English. The words in bold are violations.

  1. The fluctuations from within a participant
  2. We observe variability from within a person…
  3. When you do a task, you cannot do it consistently

As you can see, this is a pretty bad attempt at simplifying my work. It’s important to note here that simplifying does not mean being scientifically incorrect. That is not the point.

Science is Everywhere

A large part of my work is studying the concepts I study in an ecologically valid setting and/or task. So I thought to myself ‘if you cannot explain your work in an ecologically valid setting, a.k.a a park, what’s the point?’ That’s when I started looking for alternatives to my props and language. I started looking for games that could easily replicate what I study in the lab. Instead of eye-movements which are difficult to observe without sophisticated devices, I thought of motor games that would involve using tasks people do with their hands instead of their eyes. I realized the language barrier was also superficial. I had already explained my research a year ago to my curious, critical yet inquisitive grandmother; I only had to think of the explanations I gave her to satisfy any potential audience passing a Berlin park on a Friday afternoon

My Cheerleaders

At some point, I finally had enough ideas! I had collected toys and props from friends and their babies. I had simplified every concept I could think of and got feedback from everyone in my life who had ever claimed to understand what I did. I had a million ideas… now, they needed testing.

So test I did. I reached out to my social support. I sat with a close colleague and together we came up with a simplified explanation- ‘do something once, and again, and again. It’s not the same each time’. This is what I study. Looking at this simple sentence, it’s hard to believe an hour and 2 brains went into conceptualizing it. I then started explaining my concepts to other people in my life. People I share living and office space with heard me talk about all possible concepts and answer all possible queries till I was able to simplify most of my work! Some friends volunteered to be guinea pigs for my props, others were willing to play the part of different audience members. By the end of this phase, my props had been tested on 7 people with amazing feedback to help me shortlist my final games; and I had answered, without losing scientific integrity, to at least 10 different make-belief people from different walks of life, different ages and different agendas. I was prepared!

Break a Leg!

Just like any other presentation, my Soapbox Science presentation wasn’t without its last-minute chaos of mishaps. However, these were quickly fixed by the able organizers and volunteers, and forgotten as people started coming around. I could immerse myself in talking about what I do best! I could fall in love with my work once again and forget the jumble of numbers along with the stress of publishing that awaited me back in the confines of my office.

There was an intense satisfaction when the group of 12-ish-year-old children, the early university group, and a few much older women, all thought my research was kinda cool! They had questions and opinions and words of encouragement! This wasn’t in the confines of an air-conditioned auditorium, but rather under the scorching sun, with the backdrop of trees and chirping birds!

The Post-talk Experience

Since I was the first to present, I could sit back, relax and watch the rest of my colleagues present their work. Some had made their own props, some had used simple everyday tools to demonstrate complex scientific principles, some had pictures to pass around and some had candy to give away! The stimulating experience did not just end with the end of soapbox. There was a dinner after where everyone would find themselves in the midst of interesting conversations about personal and professional events!

Everyone was simply united by the fact that they were women in science, eager to show the world what they had to offer.

2 Comments

  1. wow, well done again for making science interesting to the general population. also done in a language not you native one. Da iawn (welsh for well done) Nain. <

    1. Thank you Nain! 🙂 The languages were English and German – I swapped after asking the people gathered what they’d prefer!

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