Scientific engagement to my family: sounds kind of Greek to them?

Kostas Anestis, ESR1, seeking suggestions

September 2020

How to talk about your studies? A situation many of you might have also faced.

Since I started studying biology, I have always been trying to find a way to talk to my Greek family about what I was studying and my future career plans. Many of my family members (which in Greece is often a lot, and would include cousins of cousins and their cousins) have no scientific background. However, they have always been interested in knowing about my progress and studies, and what I am currently doing.

Starting from my bachelor degree studies, I had to explain the general field of biology. To do this, I was always referring to some “catchy” subjects, which are probably more known due to TV or social media. Such catchy subjects would include among others molecular biology (and thus DNA), microbiology, human genetics (with focus on diseases), botany and zoology. The age of the target group is of critical importance for finding the appropriate vocabulary. For younger ages, talking about biology and all the options you have for a future somehow works. In this age group, people have more understanding about the fact that someone could work on environmental sciences, given that almost everyone is aware (and acknowledges) of climate change etc…

Then, arrives the fun moment where I have to explain everything to my grandparents. The level of difficulty, as you can imagine, rises substantially but still it is not the worst-case scenario because it is still general studies. My strategy in this case was to stress the fact that biologists work in the lab and do research. In their minds, research automatically means trying to cure diseases and find new medicines. Of course, their next question will be: “so are you discovering new drugs?” and the answer usually is “I could if I wanted to”, I mean why not it is always an option. Unlike the idea of me discovering new drugs, the idea of using the concept of “protecting the environment” as part of describing environmental sciences was creating a confusion in older ages and very quickly made them lose interest :/

During my master’s, the concept of general studies remained. I started lab work for my master thesis where I used functional genomics to study sex determination in a diatom. How am I supposed to explain this to my family? Apart from the fact that it contains the forbidden word sex (at least for the older people), it is also on a diatom (the word comes from Greek, but still). Now, the conversation begins about microorganisms in the sea. Thanks to the many diseases attributed to microorganisms, this word can somehow be understood. This is the closest to explaining my actual work I have achieved. Also, Ι never forgot to mention that Ι work in a lab and that I wear a lab coat. It is very convincing evidence that something important is going on. For the record, I never managed to explain the rest even though I tried to simplify myself as much as possible.

So, all done with bachelor and master studies! The question on whether I will discover new drugs was always asked and the answer was always “No, even though I potentially could”.

When I was recruited by MixITiN for my project everybody was of course very happy and curious to know what I was about to do. The title of my PhD? “Comparative and functional genomics and constitutive mixotrophs and generalists non-constitutive mixotrophs”… … Recognisable key words such as marine microorganisms and genomics (DNA) are still there. I was lucky enough to work with a toxic mixotroph. So, the first thing to start the explanation with is that I study a TOXIC organism which could be harmful and dangerous. It produces a toxin, which could have many effects and why not medical applications. So, yes, in this case it could be that I am trying to discover drugs. The “Could be” answer could be true here 😀 The generalist non-constitutive mixotrophs… I mean, I didn’t even know what they were until I started my PhD, how am I supposed to explain it to my family. At this point, skipping the explanation part and just proceeding to possible jobs that I can do in the future works very well.

The outcome of a PhD however is very well known, a degree of doctor of philosophy! The title is quite known and it is more than enough to convince them that it is worth doing a PhD. The next step can be continuing research (on an obscure topic that my audience will again interpret in many different ways), following an academic career or just find an office job.

CONCLUSION: Many of my family members currently hope that I will find a vaccine for COVID-19 😀

Any ideas on how to approach these family talks in the future?