Picture credit: https://www.empireonline.com/movies/outbreak/review/
After one of our Professors, Sanushka Naidoo, challenged us to think about what it is that inspires us and what we aspire to be, I stumbled onto an opinion piece titled “Why Universities need to tell better stories”. You might be wondering what aspiration and communication have to do with one another and I hope to make that clear by the end.
Like many of my fellow scientists, I was inspired to do science. The inspiration came not from a wonderful biology teacher or a visit to a local lab but rather from a movie called “Outbreak”, starring Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman. I was ten at the time (I know, where were my parents?) and after watching “Outbreak” five or six times, I decided I wanted to be just like the scientists I had seen on TV, working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). I was going to rid the world of HIV and Ebola.
After I completed my undergraduate degree in microbiology, I applied for a Honours hoping to get a project with a Professor of virology, someone who studies viruses. Unfortunately, at that time they were only accepting female students. I then had to change my focus and ended up, thankfully, working on plant pathogens instead. You see, shortly after I started my Honours, I learned that I couldn’t handle blood all that well, and seeing that Ebola is a haemorrhagic disease that makes one bleed (a lot), I was lucky to have made the switch. Nine years later, I am a PhD candidate still working with plant pathogens and I haven’t looked back since.
While “Outbreak” isn’t strictly science communication, it did do a lot to inform me about what some viruses can do, how they spread and the risks they pose; even if it was a little ‘Hollywood’. Yes, it was a work of fiction shot in a studio in the United States but some of the images portrayed in the film reminded me of some of the photographs that captured the tragedy of the 1995 Ebola outbreak in Zaire. The release of “Outbreak” at the time of the Zaire outbreak popularized our concerns about a deadly virus spreading and so also created awareness about these deadly Ebola-like viruses. Remember this happened at a time when social media did not exist. If you didn’t learn about the outbreak from the TV, radio or newspaper, then the cinema was going to show it to you.
My work may seem less exciting to some, especially when you’re standing in a conversation with someone who works on cancer therapies or has found new ways to harness energy from the sun, but I have some wonderful stories waiting to be told. So do many others. Much of the world’s research happens at institutions of higher learning, by the researchers and students who work there. They research everything from HIV and evolution to cyber security and politics.
At the University of Pretoria, they have recently started something called “Research Matters”. This is one way of showcasing some of the most relevant research happening in South Africa, on its campuses. With the help of social media, the university is trying to generate a larger audience to share these stories with. While this is a start for research communication at our university, I often wondered if it shouldn’t be us, the scientists, getting ourselves and our work out there to the people who fund it and benefit from it.
There are journalists, or science journalists, for that. Yes, there are, and they have a role to play in communicating science but I think there are other ways for us to share our science too. Beyond communicating with the scientific community through scientific papers, posters and talks I have learned to get in touch with a broader audience about my work and other topics using my drawings, cartoons, creative pieces and even blogs. If I had the budget and the time, I think I would even make a film about it.
I have been told that I do not fit the typical scientist mold but I doubt anyone would be happy fitting a mold. We are all unique. Just because we are scientists doesn’t mean that we are only good at science. Some of my colleagues also sing, dance, rap, act, write, summarize talks in three minutes or less and, believe it or not, do it well; sometimes better than the science bit. Using these and other talents in innovative ways can create unique avenues for us to share our research and communicate these stories.
During my PhD, I really started to see what being a scientist was like. After struggling to communicate with friends and family about my work, I realized that I was like Motaba, the virus in “Outbreak”. The scientists ‘got me’ but no one in the general public wanted me. If I didn’t evolve my way of thinking, my work would ‘infect’ just a few and that’s when it clicked, I need an outbreak. If we are to share the wonderfully infectious world of science, we are going to need to be more infective!