Is there anybody out there?

Researchers are under increasing pressure to communicate the results of their endeavours more widely. But how can we begin to establish a meaningful dialogue with an audience we don’t know?

My name’s James Harle, and in my capacity as a writer for Research Media I work with researchers and research-performing organisations to help share their work in an accessible and impactful way. It can be a demanding task; research is inherently complex after all – if it weren’t, we’d all be doing it – and many investigators are only used to explaining what they do to similarly expert colleagues. In my experience, however, there is no topic so obtuse or abstract that it can’t be made accessible (at least in principle) to a given audience.

And therein lies the crux of the matter: powerful communication – the kind that not only puts a message across but makes it stick, makes it memorable – begins with knowing your audience. When you know the person you’re talking to, you understand their experience and frame of reference; when you can speak directly to someone’s experience, you can engage their interest, and there is no limit to what you can make them understand.

It has often been said that there is some virtue in being able to explain a concept in simple enough terms that your mother (or grandparents, or a barkeep, depending on who you listen to) can understand it. So, in that spirit, let’s use my mother as an example: she’s a middle-aged beekeeper from Devon, with no formal training in the sciences. She doesn’t have any interest in, say, research that uses machine learning to uncover hidden networks within social media – but she does know a hell of a lot about bees, and a handy analogy can bring those two worlds together. I might tell her it’s a computer program that could determine which of her bees had probably been in contact with which other bees behind her back.

It’s easy to communicate effectively with an audience of one – especially if it’s your mum – but engaging the public usually means audiences with higher volumes, and this can raise issues. Specifically, the more people you want to talk to, the more general your frame of reference has to be. At Research Media, some of our most difficult clients are those who want to reach everyone. When you say that your audience is everyone, you are necessarily being lazy; 89 per cent of the world’s population doesn’t speak English, for a start. The fact is that a message to be read by ‘everyone’ may be heard by many, but will be too diluted to achieve any impact.

Another common stumbling block for researchers is falling back on communication methods that work for academic audiences. Too often, I come across scientists who are not prepared to give up (even for a moment) their project acronyms, their technical jargon and their citations. I won’t deny that these tools have their place; they are useful in communicating effectively and efficiently with your immediate colleagues. But the problem is that, put simply, your colleagues already know what you do – and this language won’t help anyone else get in on the action.

So, choose your audience wisely, as they should be at the centre of your communications strategy. When you aim to engage or to explain, begin by exploiting the commonalities between members of your audience; build your communications on shared and fundamental knowledge. Finally, avoid common mistakes that can distort your image of the people you are speaking to. The truth is that, complex as your work may be, it is for the benefit of the general populace – and it won’t be as far from their comprehension as you think.

Antonia Zaferiou: A Journey of Movements

Postdoctoral Fellow, Antonia Zaferiou, perfectly blends her interests to find her true passion

My childhood dream was to have a different job each day: dancer on Monday, singer on Tuesday, architect on Wednesday, doctor on Thursday, and artist on Friday. I had loving parents who encouraged me to dance, sing, build, deconstruct, and explore. I was enveloped in a world of artistic expression of moving and singing within, and through, different types of music. I am thankful that this cascade of influential experiences and people in my life eventually led me into my current fields of engineering and biomechanics. It all started in a dark corner of my grandparents’ home in Flushing, Queens, in New York City.AZ

I have fond memories of the basement in that house, which lent itself to highly competitive cousin ping pong tournaments, and building fort labyrinths in the empty basement bar. We were initially confined to an area including oval-framed, yellow-tinted grayscale portraits of distant relatives on the wall, a ping pong table, a stationary bicycle, a small couch (for whoever was on deck to play ping pong next) and the oversized bar we called “the cave.” When we were about nine, we were officially allowed into the back room.

At first we were all pretty scared of this room; it had been dark and elusive for so long. We would fight over who had the responsibility to go back there to retrieve the ping pong ball that snuck through the tiny mouse-sized hole at the bottom of the door to the back room. I’m not sure why we wouldn’t cover this hole with a couch cushion, but I suppose they were all used up for building our fortifications. The room’s cold concrete floor sent ominous shivers up our spines. There was a deep walk-in closet that smelled like something strange and old immediately to the right after entering. Now we recognize that smell as the odor from mothballs; it was a perfect grandchild deterrent. Beyond the closet, there was a large table centered in the room, loud laundry machines, a large sink, a dangling single lightbulb over the table, and a monstrous oil burner in the corner.

My grandparents used this room to teach us some important life skills. My grandmother taught us how to sew and do laundry, and one day, bored with our sewing assignment, my older cousin dared me to sneak past the oil burner. Clinging to the wall opposite the oil burner, carefully shuffling past its radiating warmth, I discovered a dark room with another dangling single light bulb that I was too short to reach. It was, in fact, my grandfather’s mini machine shop. The room had a single counter I couldn’t quite reach, and tools hung organized on the wall, the only one of which I could reach was his meter-long T-square. After telling my grandfather about my discovery, he started to teach me how to use some of the tools, like the vice, and how to create technical drafts with his T-square. I found out that he was an engineer, which meant that he could design, make, and fix things.

Around the same time, I can also recall the excitement and butterflies I felt when I was deemed ready for ballet pointe shoes. I was convinced that these shoes were going to be so much fun. Ballerinas effortlessly floated on the tips of toes, elongating their lines, spinning like tops, all due to these magical shoes. I had been so excited that for years prior, I would secretly build my own pointe shoes by stuffing Legos and blocks into my ballet slippers. Little did I know, the actual shoes would inflict the same amount of pain on my toes as did the Legos.

The dance teacher told my mother that because I was about to embark on this new pointe-shoes adventure, it would be very important for me to take more ballet classes and keep my weight to a minimum. I became a weight-obsessed awkward pre-teen, terrified to wear sandals that would expose my raw blistered feet. After years of this routine I still felt the ability to be lost in music when I would perform or take a dance class. But by the time I turned 16, I grew weary of ballet’s strict guidelines of artistic expression. Luckily I would find another outlet for this lifelong passion, only this time, I would find it in science.

As a junior in high school I had an energetic physics teacher who understood the importance of hands-on activities to embed physics fundamentals. He once brought us outside and challenged us to try to break an egg by throwing it as hard as we could at the blanket other students held as a target. Through exercises like this, I found – and was surprised by the fact – that physics came to me so easily. Ballet training developed my habits of perseverance and perfectionism at an early age. But finally I was a natural at something. I now had the tools to relate to the motion I observed in our surroundings, and indeed felt as a dancer.

I decided to take AP Physics the following year. My teacher, Ms. Pritchard, was a female engineer, and I suspect that she had a lot to do with the decision to apply to engineering programs. It’s not as if I remember the exact moment that this occurred to me, because at the time I was applying to 17 schools with interest in majoring in dance, singing, education, psychology, and/or physical therapy. But interacting with this teacher was when it all came together. I now realize that all of the moments leading up to that class – loving design and building, understanding what an engineer was from an early age, and being a natural at physics – were finally working together, pushing me towards my eventual course of study in engineering. Ms. Pritchard seemed to be able to have a career in both engineering and teaching, so maybe I could do the same. We were assigned a project to explain physics fundamentals as they related to our hobbies. I presented the “physics of ballet,” but didn’t realize that this was more than a project. It was foreshadowing of things to come, the very things I now study.

I strategically applied to The Cooper Union early decision for mechanical engineering. Just as ballet is a good base for other forms of dance, engineering, I thought, would provide a robust foundation to pursue other careers, and provide me with a hirable skill-set upon graduation. I was attracted to Cooper Union because it offered a full-tuition scholarship and was situated in the East Village. With its pay-it-forward model, I was excited to attend, and to be able to give back to the small and rigorous school after graduating. I knew that engineers help create the world that we want and need, but I wasn’t so sure how much creativity could be involved.

In my first semester at Cooper Union I was randomly assigned into a section of an “Engineering Design and Problem Solving” class led by an adjunct professor who studies sport biomechanics. This put biomechanics on my radar as a potential field of study I could use to weave dance into mechanical engineering. In the meantime, I persevered through chemistry and math classes that were completely unnatural to me. Finally, when classes became more hands-on, visual, and design-oriented, I flourished and acknowledged how natural and exciting engineering was to me. The professor who introduced me to biomechanics also helped me secure a research internship at a dance biomechanics lab. Eventually I was an undergraduate attendee of a national biomechanics conference.

At this conference I saw a flyer for a PhD studentship that must have been MADE for me: “PhD studentship focused on biomechanics of performing arts.” If someone had asked me to do so, I could not have written a more perfect opportunity for my interests. The next day I met the professor who posted it, introduced myself with my resume, shared a lunch with her, and secured the position. She has remained my advisor and mentor throughout my pursuit of a PhD. She guided me through developing my specific aims and designing my experiment to mitigate measurement error and challenge the performer sufficiently to reveal preferred mechanical strategies, using dancers as a model system.

Ballet dancers spend years undergoing very specific training. This leads to very well practiced, deliberate, and goal-directed movement patterns that allow for systematic research on the subject. Turning is something we all have to do in daily life to circumvent obstacles and navigate our surroundings. Dancers can perform multiple rotations supported by a very small base, and typically perform these turns in a position that makes it challenging to maintain balance. Our goal is to understand how dancers overcome these extreme challenges, in hopes of helping others who have physical limitations that reduce their ability to turn in daily life.

I have been using my mechanical engineering foundation to uncover the control strategies dancers use to push on the ground prior to different types of turns, and how they balance during these turns. I have also collaborated with the VA to uncover how older adults perform changes of direction during walking. I strive to creatively convey my findings so that a person who wants to learn how to turn can do so in a fun way. This may include developing systems that interact with a user in real-time to communicate mechanics through sound.

Through these collective pursuits I see that my creativity can be intertwined with research, so that I am a hybrid scientist-engineer-dancer-teacher. My dream is to uncover mechanisms as a scientist, and design creative interactive products, to provide these findings to an end-user in an artistic way. For example, I have been developing a system to provide real-time sound feedback to communicate successful patterns of how to push on the ground for balancing, weight shifting, and performing dance turns. By encoding certain force patterns into music patterns, a dancer can interact with music to learn about movement.

As a fellow of a NSF GK-12 and USC Viterbi grant, I had been given an unbelievable opportunity to partner with a local middle school science teacher to infuse engineering into the curriculum and learn how communicate my research to larger audiences (especially and arguably, the toughest crowd – middle school kids). They ask the best questions, ranging from, “Why do we close our eyes and tear when we yawn?” “How do rubber erasers erase?” and, “Can black holes collide?” to “Why are you studying how dancers turn?”

While I have learned a great deal from these students, the thing I can’t seem to overcome is the realization of how stacked the deck is against these kids. Engineering is not on their radar as something “cool” to do, especially for the girls. So I hope my work can inspire the idea that a really creative career can emerge from pursuing interests outside of school, in tandem with hard work in the classroom.

I believe that efforts to infuse engineering into K-12 curriculum, the popularity of characters like “Tony Stark,” and engineering-oriented toys like “GoldieBlox,” are monumentally important to promote engineering as the amazing and empowering field I know it to be. After all, not every student is blessed with supportive parents, an insightful and handy grandfather, and the opportunities I was afforded growing up in a good school district. I believe it is our responsibility as scientists to ensure that today’s generation of ballerinas can grow into the engineers of tomorrow.

Antonia Zaferiou
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Mechanical Engineering
University of Michigan

Originally from New York, Antonia earned a B.E in Mechanical Engineering from the Cooper Union and recently earned a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Southern California. Her dissertation focused on the body’s control and dynamics during turning tasks. She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Scholar of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan. She aspires to help individuals with control deficits by creatively communicating results of mechanically-founded investigation of movement performance.  Antonia is dedicated to teach scientific fundamentals in creative ways and is thrilled to participate in various STE(A)M outreach activities.