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Vol. LXVII, No. 7
March 27, 2015
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‘Big Picture, Small Talk’ Helps NIEHS Scientists Communicate
Dr. David Miller spoke about pharmacology using effective metaphors, comparing his research to the movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Dr. Abbe Boyles hopes the new series will meet a need common to biomedical research organizations—the need to better communicate science.

At left, Dr. David Miller spoke about pharmacology using effective metaphors, comparing his research to the movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. At right, Dr. Abbe Boyles hopes the new series will meet a need common to biomedical research organizations—the need to better communicate science.

Photos: Steve McCaw

The Big Picture, Small Talk series is fostering connections among staff while it challenges NIEHS scientists to use plainer language to communicate their research. The talks, which debuted last fall, have tackled topics across the spectrum of NIEHS research, from epidemiology to toxicology and structural biology.

Dr. Abbe Boyles, organizer of the ongoing series, believes this grassroots initiative may be the only one at NIH to target people in the nonscientific workforce who want to learn more about the work they support.

“One of the inspirations for this series was Laura McGrew, a contracting officer in the NIEHS Office of Acquisitions,” said Boyles. “She wanted to understand more about the science behind the things she was being asked to buy, both for her own knowledge and to be able to speak more intelligently with her customers.” The series is proving to be a community builder for NIEHS as it fosters networking among scientific and nonscientific staff and across research divisions.

In addition, scientists are increasingly aware of the importance of building support for biomedical research; clear communication is crucial to the task. The series gives researchers experience talking to audiences outside their own areas of specialization.

So far, topics have included two high-profile public health studies, which Dr. Scott Auerbach, a molecular toxicologist, called everyone projects—large-scale efforts that include scientists and support staff from several NIEHS branches and offices.

Recently, epidemiologist Dr. Richard Kwok described the cross-divisional GuLF STUDY (Gulf Long-Term Follow-Up Study), which monitors potential health effects of the 2010 BP oil spill. In January, Auerbach discussed the efforts of some 11 groups in the National Toxicology Program, which is headquartered at NIEHS, to characterize the toxicity of mystery compounds involved in the 2014 Elk River, W.Va., chemical spill.

The inaugural talk featured an overview of NIEHS history and research. Other speakers combined plain language and humor to discuss research that could sound unintelligible to outsiders eavesdropping on highly specialized scientists. Pharmacologist Dr. David Miller presented the biology of the blood-brain barrier, “How Therapeutic Drugs and Nasty Chemicals Move Around Your Body.”

Dr. Geoff Mueller, a structural biologist, helped NIEHS employees appreciate how nuclear magnetic resonance imaging helps in the study of environmental exposures that trigger allergic reactions and the search for better treatments. His talk included a visit to the NMR lab, where visitors saw firsthand the challenges of working with sensitive equipment.

Boyles says the series will continue as long as scientists are signing up to present and folks are showing up to learn.—Eddy Ball


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