Mingling in a Microworld

January 2019

Notes by MixITiN’s ESR 11, Lisa Schneider

For nine months now, I have been mingling in a world that is invisible to the naked eye. I have a background in physical oceanography/hydraulic engineering and am now working at Deltares (The Netherlands). My research focuses on coastal water management under the new mixotroph-centric paradigm in ecology. So, I have moved from a world of currents to the microscopic world of plankton. During the first few months of my project, I have learned many things related solely to the microworld. However, the most important thing I have learned in these past months is the importance of language.

One of the definitions of language in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community”. I immediately associate languages with countries, their communities and culture. I have really been enjoying getting to know The Netherlands by learning Dutch. My native languages German and English have really helped me in the process of learning Dutch. German, English and Dutch originate from the same language family and not surprisingly, they have various similar sounding words. However, these words have in some instances evolved to mean something completely different. For example, the words Zaun (German word for fence), town (English word for settlement) and tuin (Dutch word for garden) all originated from the Norse word tun which originally meant “a fence of any material”.

Like different countries, each scientific community has their own language, with their own meaning for certain words. In science, English is the main language used globally for communication. While I easily understand the English words being used, I do not always understand the use of some words in other scientific communities. For example, during dinner with two geneticists, the talk turned to plates. As an engineer, with a dinner plate in front of me, it took me some time to realize that they were not actually talking about dinner plates, but about microplates.

Maps is another interesting word with lots of different connotations for people in different disciplines. During the brainstorming phase “to map” could mean to create a mindmap to conceptually visualize a topic. For a physical geographer, a map would be a tool to visualize a specific areal extent of a region. As part of my research I am currently constructing “heatmaps” of the trophic composition of plankton communities. So I am currently mapping or visualizing a matrix of plankton through colours.

Over the last nine months I have realized that while I am acutely aware of the fact that every country has its own set of languages, I not actively aware that every scientific community has its own language as well. Henceforth, I have decided to follow advice I found in a travel guide a few years ago. It said that before embarking on a journey to a country with a new and perhaps different culture and language, one should write down all the ideas, words, stereotypes and stories one associates with that country on a blank sheet of paper. That way one can become aware of those ideas, words, stereotypes and stories and leave them behind. I would like to use that technique in the future to become aware of my own disciplines’ language, the words and ideas I associate other discipline’s languages and how they can conflict but also benefit each other. Perhaps a high goal, but something I would like to aim for.