Communicating Science: Breaking Through Our Comfortable Silence to Form Meaningful Connections

Sabah Ul-Hasan, , UCS | January 26, 2017, 3:39 pm EDT
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Those who knew me prior to age of 17 probably anticipated I’d become a scientist. I held all the stereotypical personality traits of being weird, antisocial, and a tad eccentric back then. With my hombre highlights and loud persona, few new people I casually encounter today at, say, the grocery store suspect I enjoy spending at least eight hours examining microbial sequence data, synthesizing predictive models, and writing grant applications. It’s meditative. And though I’ve become a go-to socialite in my circles, I still wouldn’t label myself as an extrovert. To me I’m simply doing my job, being open and approachable to promote information accessibility.

A festive spread of international dishes, paired with live music from visiting artists in the evening where everyone is welcome – a common event for our housemates.

A festive spread of international dishes, paired with live music from visiting artists in the evening where everyone is welcome – a common event for our housemates.

During the past few years, I’ve put a lot of self-reflection into why I’m viewed as an extrovert when I consider myself to be quite awkward and introverted. Need someone to lead a project? Ask Sabah. Need someone to pop in and get things organized? Ask Sabah. Upcoming dinner party or do-it-yourself concert? Sabah probably has something to do with it. More and more often, I find myself in these roles – why? As any good scientist would ask themselves, what was the reason for transforming from the kooky 17-year-old I once was to becoming the town socialite?

Listening to different perspectives is critical for communication

People don’t take much of a stance on an issue until it directly involves them. Take, dare I say it, climate change as an example. Many are unswayed by the evidence until experiencing the negative impacts of climate change firsthand. Perhaps that’s the reason why I’ve moved further away from my introvert core and closer towards a perceived extrovert—the realization that a disregard for others and their issues is, by default, a disregard for myself and my issues.

Being an academic is a luxury we often forget we have. I didn’t notice it until arriving at the University of California, Merced as a doctoral student where more than 60% of the students we serve are (much like myself) coming from low-income, first generation college families and/or first generation households. The town of Merced also reminds me a great deal of the neighborhood where I grew up. It is a privilege to be at a university still at a stage of being influenced by its surrounding community in contrast to the (more common) other way around. The ability to talk to and interact with people who face issues completely different from my own as an academic keeps me grounded in my perspective, especially in our presently polarized political climate.

One example of listening as a critical aspect of communication is when our house finally decided we’d bring in some experts to help clean our yard. We refuse to water our lawn with California being in a drought, so things were looking a bit wild. A local friend of ours brought two landscapers to the scene, both from the Merced area. I was home that day and it was hot outside. I asked them if they wanted to take a break from the sun and take a snack break together. Somewhat skeptical, the two walked in and expressed this was the first time someone had treated them “like a human” on the job. We started talking and their skepticism soon faded. I was not the naïve UC student they had presumed me to be and they were hard working people with valuable insight. These interactions remind me of where I come from; why my voice is an important microphone for others aiming to better connect higher education with their communities, and the value in being an extrovert.

Science communication for a more inclusive future?

Science communication has become a topic at the forefront of conducting research, and for good reason. Funding for research on national and global levels is under the threat of undergoing drastic cuts, but discussion of science being made available to all instead of limited to the narrow, Aristocratic few of yester-century is increasing. Having scientists who proportionally represent the demography of the surrounding population is not only logical in terms of equity, but also in terms of ensuring science itself continues to grow and thrive. We are limiting ourselves by telling instead of asking and communicating—fostering dialogue. The future is in communicating, rather than the one-dimensional dichotomy of lecturing or staying quiet.

Sabah Ul-Hasan: Going outside of her comfort zone and communicating with individuals different from herself since 1996.

Sabah Ul-Hasan: Going outside of her comfort zone and communicating with individuals different from herself since 1996.

If we truly care about inclusion of underrepresented anything in any realm, accessibility or funding or showing that our scientific evidence for issues such as climate change are indeed real and should be taken quite seriously by all of us, then we first must consider the communities we come from and the communities where we live. We can conduct our science in a way that’s mindful of all these communities. A good place to start is with our families. My family was skeptical of the value in studying marine systems for years, especially because pursuing school for too long (i.e., doctoral degrees) can culturally be viewed as an economic waste of time in first generation American families. These days, after much patience and constant non-condescending conversations on all sides, my family is quite proud of my work as a scientist. They understand and stick up for its significance, they take their Seafood Watch booklets with them everywhere and make it a point to recycle. In exchange I continuously improve the communication of my work, a win-win for all of us. Science communication isn’t another line on a resume, it’s us.

We will mess up, but just like with any experiment—we’ve got to be okay with troubleshooting and trying again. We need to persevere. That’s the difference between a scientist and a good scientist, right? I’m not sure, but maybe being an extrovert is worth a shot.


Bio: Sabah Ul-Hasan is a Quantitative & Systems Biology Eugene-Cota Robles Doctoral Fellow at the University of California, Merced co-advised by Dr. Mark Sistrom and Dr. Tanja Woyke. A first generation American born in Salt Lake City, Sabah holds B.S. degrees in Biology, Chemistry, and Environmental & Sustainability studies from the University of Utah and an M.S. in Biochemistry from the University of New Hampshire. Today, Sabah’s research interests lie with host-microbe symbioses in venomous animals. Sabah enjoys spending her free time on short films creatively promoting science knowledge accessibility, rock climbing, partaking in philosopher banter, and talking to strangers. You can find her on Twitter @Sabah_UlHasan


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