Sally James

Seattle Science Writer

Blog post

Hair-having animals and words

Photo courtesy of Burke Museum. Prehistoric sloth lived in ancient Puget Sound region.

What does a rowdy crowd of college students in a bar have to do with the science of science communication?

Everything. Rowdy people trying to share discoveries are just people. People want stories and narratives. People need things translated for them into words they know, rather than the jargon we all accumulate.

“I study tiny things that are man and woman parts of an animal. The woman part talks and the man part listens,” is part of the contest-winning entry in the 1000 Word Challenge that happened March 15 in Seattle at the Burke Museum.

Yasmeen Hussain, a graduate student in biology, won the contest by translating her science into a strictly limited vocabulary of the most common 1,000 words of the English language. The challenge comes from the XKCD comic strip Up Goer Five, an attempt to label parts of a Saturn V NASA rocket using only the ten-hundred most common words.

More excerpts from the contest –

“If we understand what happened to these really old hair-having animals when stuff happened, we might be able to know stuff about the hair-having animals we have today.” From Jonathan Calede, who won for Style.

“I study noises made by big rocks that were built from hot stuff bursting out of the ground.” From Kate Allstadt, who won for Use of Language.

I am a hair-having animal myself. I have recently returned from a conference with smart hair-having animals talking about why we have an obesity epidemic, among other subjects. I volunteer explaining health literacy to some Americorps staff who work with patients in poverty. I sometimes study the words used in informed consent documents, to be sure patients will understand research before they consent to it. Words matter to me, because understanding matters to me.

Back to the bar. The wonderful people at the Seattle Forum on Science, Ethics and Policy are deep thinkers, and they did not choose to stage this contest lightly. They have a mission – which includes fostering public discussion. Discussion requires understanding.

But before we go deep, let’s get another laugh from Yasmeen’s winning entry.

“The tiny things have a conversation so that they can find each other and make babies. Some man things are better at listening than others. I want to know if the man things that are better at listening are also better at making babies.” (So do I, Yasmeen. Where did you find man things that listen?)

Here is some of Yasmeen’s pure science version of her work.  “I study the link between sperm chemotaxis and fertilization success. Eggs in animals such as sea urchins release chemicals that act as sperm attractants.”

Telling stories about science and our health demands creative use of language. You can try this for yourself, right now. Do you think you are good at explaining?

Give it a try

In a phone interview, Yasmeen said she was very frustrated at the beginning of the contest. She spent most of a day, walking around campus worrying about how to avoid “chemical” in her description. She finally settled on talks and listens as a way to explain cell signals. Her entry led a friend to say “I finally understand your research.”

She is in her second year of doctoral studies in biology and hopes that this experience will help her write better for all audiences in the future.

“I think this is another way to check myself and make sure I’m grounded when I’m explaining science to people,” she said.

Grounding professionals in how to talk to people becomes vitally important in health care. Several Seattle folks are part of studying how social media may support literacy around health.  Dana Lewis runs a weekly Twitter meetup. Wendy Sue Swanson is a local pediatrician who pioneers leveraging social media to improve patient care.

May all of you hair-having animals get clear words from people about your bad things in your body when you need them.

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