November 12, 2012

Dos and Don'ts during a lab tour

A lab tour at the Nature Research Center in Raleigh, NC.

By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt / ASAS Communications

Getting to visit laboratories is a big perk of my job as a science writer. I have joined fellow reporters and the public for tours of some great research facilities.

But I think some scientists forget to tailor their tours for non-scientists. A tour for the media or the public needs to be different than a tour for scientists or university administrators.

To explain your research to the media or the public, follow a few rules during your lab tour.

1. Don’t just describe the equipment.

Scientists are understandably proud of the equipment in their labs. I’ve been on many lab tours where the scientist walks through and names the machines in the room. Unfortunately, I don’t know what a “GLEN CRESTON GY-RO DISH / PUCK MILL GM100″ does or why a “Thermo GENESYS™ 10S UV-Vis Spectrophotometer” would be helpful.

You have specialized, expensive equipment, but that does not mean anything unless you explain why it is important and what you hope to learn by using it.

To a non-scientist, what is the interesting part of this photo?

The human story is nearly always more interesting.

When people visit your lab, they want to know how you do science. The equipment is part of the process, but to a non-scientist, the equipment is not as interesting as your ideas, your career and your discoveries.

2. Do introduce grad students and lab assistants.

Make an effort to introduce your team. Undergrad and grad students are likely to be very excited about their work. By introducing visitors to this next generation, you can drum up enthusiasm for your science. This also helps your students practice explaining their research to a general audience.

3. Don’t use a scientific poster as visual aid.

Do not assume a scientific poster will leave a non-scientific visitor with a good idea of your research. A poster is a great way to display information for visiting scientists. But most scientific posters do not make sense unless the audience has a good foundation in the science.

This poster is very helpful for visiting scientists.

But this poster relies on knowledge of scientific concepts and data analysis. It is not helpful for a non-scientific audience.

Scientific posters tend to include statistics and jargon. Those things take time to learn.

A better idea is to show the materials you work with. I visited a lab recently and struggled to understand how a certain kind of plant research was important. The scientist gathered us around a scientific poster to try to explain differences in plant growth. But behind us, I could see a room full of real plants actually growing. That would have made a much better visual aid. Like a backdrop on a stage, the living plants could have given context for what the scientist was saying.

4. Do stop for questions.

A lab tour contains a lot of information. Stop often to ask if anyone has questions. If a visitor misses a detail early in the tour, the rest of the tour will not make sense.

Remember that visitors from the media and the general public can actually affect the science you do. Public perception of science shapes government and corporate support for research. A lab tour is your chance to advocate for your science. If you alienate your audience, you will lose that chance.

Related article: Five questions you should ask reporters