NPR Host speaks about spicing up science communication

Annie L. Zhang

Science communicators should put emotions over equations, according to NPR host Sandra Tsing Loh. Last Friday, Loh offered UT science students advice on how to make science clearer and more interesting to the public.

Loh, who hosts the NPR podcast “The Loh Down on Science,” is a theatre professor from the University of California, Irvine.

“In science, there’s a culture where a lack of communication is a value because when you give a lecture that no one understands, it means you’re really smart,” Loh said. “It’s like intellectual hazing.”

Loh compared the phenomenon with conversations from her own childhood. She said that growing up, she would always sit at the dinner table with her father, who discussed mathematics problems in a manner that she could never understand.

“He was so good at science that he didn’t understand what it felt like to not understand science,” Loh said.

This problem has led to science becoming more narrow and the language of science becoming more confounding, she said. Junior chemistry major Kavya Rajesh, who attended the talk, said she often sees this problem at science conferences.

“As a student who works in a physical chemistry lab, technique-heavy titles filled with jargon are commonplace,” Rajesh said. “(Loh’s) talk reiterated the importance of being able to connect with the public, and how presenting your research is as important as doing it in the first place.”

To counter such a problem, Loh said to compare science to cooking.

“There’s another way to think about these talks —  a cooking show,” Loh said. “Cooking is a physical process that creates something … like science.”

In a typical cooking show, such as ones by the popular Italian-American chef Giada De Laurentiis, the show often opens by discussing past experiences and memories surrounding a particular recipe. Loh said this helps to generate emotions instead of focusing on the less interesting aspects of cooking, such as which pans or knives are used to make lasagna.

“As scientists, we should try to bring the Christmas, the happiness, the lasagna to the science, because currently, what we’re spending most of the time doing is aggressively talking about the chemical composition of the cheese grater,” Loh said.

Loh said that more recently, scientists have started to understand the importance of better communicating their work.

“Since the election, a lot of us have been experiencing a moment of urgency, a sense that now, more than ever, we need to be better at communicating our science and  research,” Loh said.

Despite this, she said that science, and science communication, should not be a political issue.

“We get locked into a ‘us vs. them’ mindset, but really, people at all ends of the political spectrum are interested by cool science,” Loh said. “It feels like we’re in a polarized environment, but we can and should continue to communicate the joy of science to everyone.”