Volume 35 Number 5 | October 2021

Effectively Communicate Lab Science for Understanding and Appreciation

Joanna R. Ellis, MS, MLS(ASCP)CM, CHWI

Joanna EllisLaboratory professionals’ voices are infrequently heard in public health conversations. Science skepticism and mistrust can influence health behaviors such as vaccination rates, diagnostic lab testing uptake, and appropriate treatment adherence. In 2019, the Pew Research Center found that individuals in the United States trust medical practitioners, providers of direct treatments and recommendations, significantly more than they trust medical research scientists. Therefore, we, as practitioners of laboratory science, hold a valuable perspective for the promotion of community health. Before we demand our voices be heard, we must first learn how to effectively communicate our valuable perspective.

If we want the public to know what we do and the implications of our work as lab professionals, we must communicate in ways that the general public finds palatable. Studies show that when the average person is unfamiliar with more than 5 percent of the terms in a passage or presentation, they experience cognitive discomfort. This discomfort leads to a variety of responses to the material with the most frequent being disengagement, suspicion, and/or hostility. Each of these responses means that much (if not all) of the message is lost. A communicator fails to solicit understanding and appreciation when they use words that make their audience uncomfortable. So how do we make audiences comfortable with lab gab?

Know Your Audience

It is important to learn as much as you can about your audience before you begin any type of science communication. Cultural humility and sensitivity play important roles in assessing if you are communicating in a culturally and linguistically appropriate manner. I begin this assessment by asking myself a series of questions.

  • Are you presenting a topic that may be viewed differently based on religious, racial/ethnic, political, or socioeconomic backgrounds?
  • Have you included colloquialisms or references that people from cultures outside your own might misunderstand or find confusing?
  • Do you use gestures or motions that might be considered offensive to others in different cultures? There are many gestures (such as the peace sign, thumbs up, and crossed fingers) that have significantly different meanings in other cultures.

If you are unable to learn much about the backgrounds of your audience, it is safest to avoid gestures and references you have not fully researched. If you are navigating controversial topics, thoroughly consider differing viewpoints and prepare measured responses to any challenges that might arise. We can make a difference in the perception of lab sciences, but we must be as prepared and professional as possible when involved in difficult conversations.

Beware of Jargon

Sir Francis Bacon told us, “Knowledge itself is power,” but social scientists say knowledge can be a curse. So, which is it, power or curse? The truth is both. The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias where a communicator assumes their audience has sufficient background to comprehend a new concept. The closer you are to a topic, the more difficult it is to remember a time when you did not know it and the more difficult it is to see the perspective of someone without that knowledge or background.

For us, the curse can be jargon. Laboratorians have thousands of acronyms and terms we may think are common knowledge or self-explanatory that are not viewed that way by the general public. Before presenting to any audience outside of the lab, I recommend that you type out the language you are considering and run it through a free tool called the De-Jargonizer at scienceandpublic.com. The tool color codes terms so that you know which words fall into one of three categories: common, mid-frequency, or rare. You will likely be surprised at some of the words flagged as “rare.”

Rare terms are considered jargon and need to be reevaluated for inclusion. Can those mid-frequency and rare terms be replaced with words that are more accessible to a greater number of people so that the De-Jargonizer suitability score is greater than 95? If it is a critically important term, it can be included with careful explanation. When we acknowledge and address any cognitive biases we hold, we are more likely to communicate our science in a way that is accessible to a variety of audiences. It is important that we, as lab professionals, present our knowledge so that it can be translated into power for others.

Get Creative with Simulations

Gifting lab gab to audiences with little science background may require some creativity. As part of my Health Education Advances with Laboratory Science (HEALS) workshop in my community-based study abroad program in Peru, students and I used simulations to help illustrate complex lab concepts. According to post-workshop surveys, participants’ favorite activity was our glucose simulation. We used a local cola bottle filled with sugar to represent dietary glucose intake. We had the participants pour the sugar into a red measuring cup that represented red blood cells. Beneath that we had a red mat cut in the shape of a drop of blood.

We described how sugar that pours out of red blood cells into the blood correlates with the glucose screening test we did at a different station. We had them continue pouring the sugar until it spilled off the red mat onto a yellow mat cut in the shape of a puddle of urine. We described how chronic ingestion of excess sugar can cause glucose to spill over into the urine. We followed up with a discussion about diabetes and demonstrations of positive and negative urine glucose dipstick tests.

Let’s put your gift of lab gab to the test! The next iteration of the HEALS workshop will be in Zambia where HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria are public health priorities. According to Zambian partners, this HEALS workshop needs to provide education about HIV screening and viral load testing as well as the differences between viral, bacterial, and parasitic infections and therapeutics. I am looking for brilliant simulation ideas to communicate these complex lab science concepts with the goal of improving understanding and appreciation. Gift your lab gab ideas to me at joannarellis@txstate.edu!

Joanna R. Ellis is a Clinical Associate Professor in Clinical Laboratory Science at Texas State University in Austin, Texas.

Joanna Ellis in Peru

Author Joanna Ellis organizes a Health Education Advances with Laboratory Science (HEALS) workshop as part of a community-based study abroad program in Peru, where her students use simulations to help illustrate complex lab concepts.

“Before we demand our voices be heard, we must first learn how to effectively communicate our valuable perspective.”