Guest lecturer Tyrone Hayes of Berkeley is best-known for his research into the effects of atrazine on frogs (photo by Andreas Kay via Flickr)

Of atrazine, frogs and the most effective ways to communicate science

Alumna Melanie Duhamel shares insights gleaned from endocrinologist's talk

Alumna Melanie Duhamel is a Toronto-based engineer, environmentalist and freelancer who is fascinated by frogs, sharks, and other less-popular branches on the Tree of Life.

She recently attended a guest lecture by Professor Tyrone Hayes of the University of California, Berkeley at the University of Toronto. Below, Duhamel shares her thoughts on the event.

After reading about Professor Tyrone Hayes in the New Yorker, I was bubbling with anticipation to hear his talk at the University of Toronto.

Would there be high drama and hilariously inflammatory statements? Would he be a self-aggrandizing eccentric who'd spark a heated debate with one of the more staid U of T professors in the audience?  

Instead, I left his talk with immense respect for his science and the way he communicates.  

Nearly every scientist grapples with this issue today: most scientific results never reach the people who need them, whether they are regulators, CEOs, or the general public. How can you ensure that your research will have an impact in a world inundated with myriad social, political, and economic concerns, not to mention intense competition for limited research funding?

Hayes models several strategies all of us can adopt to help our science make the world a better place.  

To summarize his effective approach in terms most professors can understand: tell your story the way you would in a lab meeting with new graduate students.

This means:

Acknowledge those who inspired and helped you. Hayes told the story of why he chose this field and what it means to him personally. He was “a little boy who liked frogs”. Most of his students are the first in their families to go to university, often with parents who work on farms and have been “sprayed with many of the chemicals in our research”. We sometimes have the impression that science has to be objective and depersonalized, yet such details about your upbringing and family help the audience to relate to – and remember – your story.  

Show how your studies built on one another to strengthen the case for your results. Professor Hayes talked about the gradual progression from his first study on atrazine’s effects on one species of frog in his lab, to another species, to wild frogs collected along an interstate highway, and ultimately to a study co-authored with researchers who’d seen similar effects of atrazine on all five classes of vertebrates, all over the world. Now, he’s looking at mixtures of chemicals in agricultural runoff. Of course, research doesn’t always proceed in such a linear fashion, but your audience will understand it better if you describe it as such and explain any plot twists. 

Avoid jargon but if you must use it, explain. If you must use a technical term, give your audience a one-sentence explanation using the root of the word or another simple memory trick. Example: testosterone is a hormone responsible for the development of male testes.

Pictures are indeed worth a thousand words. Professor Hayes had very few slides containing text. Rather, he showed us the frogs at the pool parties, his Motel 6 experimental apparatus, the interstate highway map, a frog smiling during intercourse, and some scary gonadal deformities. All this along with the more conventional microscope images and graphs with error bars and p-values. He showed simple enzyme pathways he’d animated on an airplane. You don’t need to be a graphic artist to make effective slides, but by all means, use any help you have access to.

Give your research some interdisciplinary context. Hayes introduced the concept of environmental racism. He quoted Steinbeck to illustrate how drastically frog populations have declined in Salinas, California. Doing so helps him reach a broader audience and shows the big-picture relevance of his work.

Explain what people can do with the knowledge you’ve given them – especially if that knowledge may be frightening to them. Hayes had clear answers to questions about what people can do as individuals, as well as collectively, to minimize the risks posed by toxic chemicals. For example, when asked by the audience, he told us that some home water purifiers can remove atrazine in drinking water. When asked about policy changes that could lessen the potential risks of synthetic chemicals, he suggested a tax on chemical companies. This tax would provide a pool of funding for objective toxicity testing, since governments and industries no longer fund this necessary research (or may not be able to do so without conflicts of interest). 

Not every scientist has had a cinematic career like Professor Tyrone Hayes. But we can all derive the same inspiration he did from Albert Einstein, who reportedly said, “Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.” If all little kids who liked frogs leveraged their passions and talents as well as Professor Hayes, the frogs – and indeed our whole planet – would be much better off indeed.

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