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5 Things a Physicist Needs to Learn When Presenting to Biologists - Part 2

By Diana Merino

By Diana Merino

Physicists and biologists are different scientist species. Although these two fields are vital organs in the body of science, they are as different as Tim Horton’s and Druxie’s cookies… to most people they might look the same (it’s all science, right?), but once you’ve tasted them you understand that there’s a large gap separating them.

Indeed, physics and biology couldn’t be more different, but they work together for a common goal: understanding what surrounds us, being either how forces exert different reactions on our limbs, or how our nervous and musculoskeletal systems work in unison to control these movements.

What I mean is that physics needs of biology as biology needs of physics to fully understand everything around us. In the same manner, physicists need biologists and vice versa, although this ideally reciprocal relationship constantly suffers due to the large gap that separates them—a gap that cannot be filled (no one is looking to convert physicists into biologists) but than can be bridged through proper communication.

Keeping this in mind, I suggest 5 things that physicists should be aware of when presenting to biologist. I hope these suggestions help physicists understand biologists’ psyche and appeal to our application, mechanism and/or pathway-driven brains during weekly seminars (note: these suggestions are not only relevant in the context of weekly seminars but life in general. People who date or are considering dating someone from the other side of this metaphorical bridge: keep your eyes peeled!)

1: Biologists chose Biology to stay away from Physics. If you speak “Physics” to us, we will stay away from you.

Now this might be a general statement, but for the most part, it’s true. Biologists flee to the sound of physics “talk”. To be completely honest, I chose an undergrad in Biology because my program didn’t require me to take any Physics or Calculus courses. I don’t think I’ve admitted this aloud before, but the reason why I did not pursue an undergrad in Biochem or Biomed or Kinesiology was because I didn’t want to take any of those courses again (they were University entrance requirements so I took them during high school only to realize that I was better without them). That should give you an idea of how badly biologists don’t want to hear physics terms or equations, especially if they make no sense or have no relevance in our nice little application/structure/mechanism-centred comfort bubble.

Application: focus on how applicable your project and your main findings are in a biological context. We are mostly interested on how you will use your amazing physics skills to cure cancer or on the potential results you will obtain from patients than on how you used a 10mm rod at a 33o angle... I forget already.

2. End>>>Means to an end

This ties up with point 1. Since biologists’ brains are not programmed to understand the physics “talk” (the equations, the angles, the intensity of a certain laser, etc) point us to the reason behind why you are doing this. Show us the dessert menu (what we are really interested in, in this case the application and relevance of your research in a biological context) before the entrée menu (the means, which might confuse us and make us loose interest in your entire meal!). Or at least, keep reminding us during your presentation what the dessert is. Maybe that will convince us to keep up with the methods and techniques and wait until we can finally sink our teeth into the promised sweet treat.

Application: sweeten your talk by reminding us of the relevance of your project throughout the presentation (ie. the dessert)

3. Review, renew and revamp!

I am new to the MBP program, thus I’ve only sat down on about 10 physics seminar talks (downtown) so far. Even though this is only a representative sample of all the amazing work being done uptown, I think I’ve heard at least 4 microbubble talks, which makes me think that a bit less than half of the research in the physics stream focuses on microbubbles. However, I don’t think presenters focus on showing how their project is different from other microbubble projects. At least I don’t recall the differences and suffer from branding all this research under the same ‘microbubble” umbrella. I am aware that this is an unfair classification and hope physicists are patient with biologists like me, who perhaps need further clarification as to how your particular project is different from the one I heard last week. How will your project affect the face of cancer research?

So I recommend this: set a biologist-friendly background (review), restate your particular purpose (renew), and show me how your project is completely different from all the other microbubble/MRI talks I’ve ever heard before by interpreting your data in a unique and fascinating way (revamp).

Application: review, renew and revamp

4. Pictures are worth more than a thousand equations

Some weeks ago I sat down on a very informative and graphically fascinating physics presentation. I couldn’t tell you what the entire project was about but I can still remember the 3D image of a mouse embryo and the developmental malformations observed in the knock-out strain. I could even describe the embryo colors and in what position its tail was.

Did you hear that physics stream-ers? I still remember!!!

And I’m sure that there are a lot of other biologists out there who remember another 3D graph, a particular concept map you presented, or the picture of a dissection you showed. As biologists, we are good at remembering these things (pictures, patterns, pathways, etc), partly because we were born with those abilities, and partly because we were trained to memorize those type of pictures during our undergrad and grad training. So if you want to appeal to your biology audience and provide us with something to remember you (or your research) by, resort to pictures (but please explain them well, just as there’s no point on showing a Western blot or a Volcano dot plot without a proper explanation, there’s no point in showing a picture and expect for us to know what you are trying to demonstrate!).

Application: try using pictures whenever possible. It will be easier on you; the presenter (no one will know if you forgot to say something), and your audience will thank you for it.

5. We know we’ll have to face physics one day… please make us care so at least something sticks

As a member of a greatly diverse department such as MBP, I am quite aware that there is much more out there than just the biology world I’ve grown to know and love. As such, I feel the need to learn things that I perhaps think are not important to me at the time, but will become handy in the future.

For example, if I had a chance to take part of a conversation on cancer research with other scientists or medical professionals, I would look ridiculous if I just knew everything there is to my particular research field and nothing about other fields, such as recent advances in radiation imagining in cancer therapy, the use of MRI-based approaches to identify hidden tumors or the structural changes underlying drug resistance, especially coming from a multi-disciplinary department such as MBP. I would be like one who memorizes every single line of the first part of a movie and disregarding the end just as the plot was thickening! Pointless.

I think we are all aware that there is so much more than our own research field field when it comes to cancer research and it is crucial to make all these fields to work together to achieve our ultimate goal:  to improve the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Going to weekly seminar opens my eyes to the whole picture, or to continue with my previous analogy, the rest of the movie. It places my research into context and allows me to see the direction in which the plot is moving. But to acquire further understanding on the other parts of this cinematic production, I need to care enough to give 100% of my attention to a seminar presentation whose title alone might make me want to run in the opposite direction. Once you’ve caught my interest, once you’ve shown me the dessert menu, once you’ve revamped your talk to make it relevant to my bio-brain, I know I will pay full attention to your presentation and find my seminar attendance worthwhile.

Believe me when I say that I have already learned many interesting facts from physics research uptown. Although I don’t always follow the entire presentation, presenters for the most part have done a great job at indicating the relevance of their work and showcasing impressive results, which makes it easier to retrieve and store the information for future use.

A funny thing happen a couple of days ago. I was checking my latest RSS feed and came across a study talking about “Ultrasound-targeted microbubble destruction (UTMD)”. I actually stopped, clicked and read the article abstract because I understood what ultrasound-targeted microbubble destruction meant!!! Pre-MBP me would have completely disregarded this article and not given it the least importance, but surprisingly, some of the weekly seminar talks stuck with me and are continuously helping me become a well-rounded scientist, one who cares for more than just her dear genetics and genomics field, and who is finally giving physics a chance.

Weekly seminars are sometimes a stretch, but if we don’t stretch out from our comfort zone and are not challenged to think beyond what we already know we are just conforming to becoming good and not great.

So please physics stream-ers, make is easier for us to pay attention to your presentation, show us that physics is more than just brain-numbing equations and vectors, show us why you care and maybe we will too.

Application: ease us into physics by making your presentation biology-student-friendly.

These suggestions may not apply to everyone or all circumstances, yet I hope it provides some insight into the biologist’s mind to understand the differences between physicists and biologists and maintain proper communication.

Addendum: I know some of these presentations are marked and need to fulfill a certain set of guidelines. If this is your case, include all the information needed, yet try to place your research into a graspable concept from the beginning and throughout your presentation.

Please add your comments below (What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with these suggestions? Would you add anything else?)

[Editor's note: Diana Merino is a PhD student in the biology stream in the Medical Biophysics Department, who bravely volunteered  to write a post about this controversial topic in response of the post for Biologists (see here): for that we thank you! - S. O.]

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