How to Make 300 Phytopathologists Laugh

By Eleanor Burke

In a short video, the person behind the camera posed this question to a series of random people: “What is a phytopathologist?” Stupefied stares accompanied answers ranging from, “No clue!” to “Is it about dogs?” (Think Fido-pathologist.) The audience laughed uproariously—probably because it was a gathering of the American Phytopathological Society–some 1,500 of whose members attended their annual meeting last summer in the Rhode IslaIMG_1883nd Convention Center.

Phytopathologists are specialists in plant diseases–doctors for plants, which, like people, can get sick and need medical attention. Why care about sick plants? Imagine one week in your life without them. No veggies, potatoes, or pasta; no meat or fish, since the drumstick on your plate owes its existence to plants, as well. Forget clothing, since fibers (even synthetics) originated as plants. In a plantless world, you would pretty much be living on water, wearing your birthday suit, and sleeping under the stars.

The sessions at the convention summoned visions of Greek mythological characters: Phytoplasma, Fastidious Prokaryote, Rhizosphere Ecology—yikes. But the keynote session, completely accessible to mere mortals, delivered a profoundly important message for scientists everywhere. The engaging speakers, Valerie Lantz-Gefroh and Evonne Kaplan Liss of the Center for Communicating Science (CCS) at Stony Brook University, urged the auditorium of scientists to re-think how they communicate their knowledge to the rest of us, because what they have to say is too important to get lost in the fog of research publications that most non-scientists—politicians, funders, policy makers, and commoners like us—can’t follow.  The CCS staff and advisory board include some pretty illustrious folks, including Carl Safina and founding member Alan Alda, both of PBS science programming prominence. Its stated mission is “to enhance understanding of science by helping train the next generation of scientists and health professionals to communicate more effectively with the public, public officials, the media, and others outside their own discipline.” The speakers promoted their mission, urging these scientists to:

• Know your audience–don’t dumb down the science, but distill it and check for understanding.

• Say what you do and why it matters, without jargon, with at most three main points.

• Use storytelling techniques like metaphor, visual, tactile, and emotional analogies.

• Let your passion show—form a relationship with the audience!

They pointed out that politicians often use these tactics “to get their message to stick,” often without regard for accuracy, and scientists need to use them to get the truth out there. Audience participants took to the microphone eagerly—a surprising turn, for what looked at first like a pretty stodgy bunch.

One researcher blurted, “This is giving scientists a little bit of license to express personal opinion. Many of us are trained to never, ever, ever, ever do that!” This heretical notion sent an audible buzz reverberating around the room.

Another pursued the idea, “I think we’re talking about a paradigm shift. In training as scientists, we were told we had to use logic, to be cool-headed, never speculate. However, when we’re talking about speaking to the public, we have to use a different kind of standard. The key is we should not lose our professional standards…not purposely tell lies…but find language that makes it clear.”

In other presentations throughout this day, folks came and went according to the topic’s relevance to their own research agenda. But for this one they stayed on, waving arms to request the microphone, exuding an urgent desire to tell the world more effectively about what they are learning and why it is so critically important to us all.

Don’t be fooled: while a phytopathologist’s title may at first elicit bewildered gazes, the topic is important to the future of all species—including ours. If you chance to meet one—ask her about her work. Semper phyto!

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