Six months ago, my credit union sent me a new Visa card. It’s bold and dynamic, featuring a white space shuttle lifting off at dawn as flames and smoke billow from the rocket boosters. Overlying this image are four letters that catch the cashier’s eye: NASA.
The conversation invariably goes something like this:
Cashier: Whoa, you work for NASA! What do you do?
Me: I’m an astronaut.
Cashier: Whoa! What’s space like?
Me: It smells funny.
Cashier: I thought there’s no air in space…
Me: I’m not an astronaut.
A few things always get to me about this exchange. First, I am a 36-year-old woman with poor posture who is two Thanksgiving dinners away from an unhealthy BMI, my clothes are typically covered in pug hair, and I often buy white cheddar popcorn for breakfast. If I am an astronaut, I’m seriously on furlough. Second, how does everyone in the world know that there is no air in space? I took two semesters of undergraduate astronomy and was only vaguely aware of this fact.
Cashier: So what do you do?
Me: I…uh…well, I research…uh…
I’ve blown that elevator pitch many times, even though I have tried for so long to get it right. It’s not just that an elevator pitch is essential for networking and shameless self-promotion, but because I want the people in my community to be as excited about science as I am. My Ph.D. research at Indiana University is unfamiliar to most people. Similarly, my current employer, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (a partner in the federal credit union, if you’re wondering whose NASA card I stole), was created by Abraham Lincoln to advise the nation on all matters related to science and evidence-based policy. It is fascinating work that I would not have obtained without public support for education, so I want my community to feel excited about exploring enormously complex societal issues the way that I do. I’m still an IU student, after all.
Over the next few posts, I’ll present some of the best and worst ways that I’ve observed when engaging the local community in conversations about science. Let’s begin with the most common conversation killer:
Cashier: So what do you do?
Poor Response: I’m a student.
There’s nothing wrong with being a student. In fact, if you’re in your twenties, the inquisitor probably assumes as much. So why is it a bad answer when talking about science? It’s bad because it’s a conversation stopper. You’re asking someone who’s looking for casual conversation to either pry your major out of you or end the conversation with “that’s nice.”
Better Response: I’m studying ______________ at Indiana University. For example: ____________________.
Using my situation, I’ve found the following to be quite effective:
Me: I’m studying bilingualism at Indiana University, like if you have two children in the same family who are both smart, what makes one child really good at learning another language and another child not so good? Or, why do some people pick up accents easily, while other people have really strong accents when they speak another language and they don’t seem to hear it.
The second response is better for getting people interested in your science work because it gives them several opportunities to engage with your story. There’s the location connection if they know someone in Bloomington. Bilingualism is a great label for my studies (though there’s no “bilingualism” major at IU) because most communities have experienced an influx of non-native speakers over the last few decades. Highlighting language and children also increases the chances that your story will remind them of someone, which gives the listener something to contribute to the conversation and increases the likelihood that they’ll remember your research later.
Lastly, before launching into your two-minute pitch, think about what the person asked you. It’s perfectly acceptable to respond to “what’s your major?” with “chemistry” or “anthropology.” A person who asks this question is likely familiar with the university system. A person who asks “what do you study?” wants to know what excites you, what your questions are, and how it connects to the larger world. In this case, “astrophysics” and “psycholinguistics” are not ideal answers. It’s doubtful that you chose your major while comatose, so be ready to talk about a problem in your field that excites you or something in the news, to give your listener that connection. My NASA card has reminded me how people from all walks of life do want to talk about science and feel invested in the process. Through brief interactions, you can connect community stakeholders to what’s going on in science at Indiana University and open the door for future opportunities to engage.