How can research be made more understandable in general? We asked someone who is really good at it. In 2018, Charlotta Lorenz won the Physics Department’s Teaching Prize, which is awarded to students and doctoral candidates for exemplary tutorial guidance. She not only talks about how to "translate" research in an understandable way, but also demonstrates it using her own current research in biophysics as an example.
No matter how logical a correlation may be, wouldn't you find it incredibly boring yourself if somebody tried explaining something in an uninteresting way? One of the most important elements in bringing clarity to science is enthusiasm. Even if at the end, a "I haven't quite understood it yet, but that's super exciting" comes out, the interest is there to engage the topic and understand more. Basically, it is helpful to explain processes or correlations via everyday phenomena so that the audience can more easily identify with them. In my lecture at the Nacht des Wissens or Night of Knowledge 2019, I chose analogies from the familiar activity of driving - for presentation:
In Prof. Dr. Sarah Köster's research group, for example, I am investigating proteins that are considered ideal candidates for "safety belts" and "shock absorbers" in biological cells. A biological cell is the smallest living unit of an organism. Such a cell, for example, can be exposed to very high forces during its locomotion; so that these forces are cushioned and do not destroy the cell, and so that the cell interior does not get too confused, there is a whole network of thread-like proteins that are very elastic. The proteins are able to absorb a lot of energy, and act as shock absorbers and protect the cell. In our experiments on these proteins, they become stiffer when pulled faster, similar to a safety belt.
In my doctoral thesis, I compare two specific proteins from this protein class "safety belts and shock absorbers". Interestingly, different cell types (e.g. heart muscle cells, neurons, or skin cells) produce different proteins of this particular protein class; so perhaps this is a way for cells to adjust their mechanical load-bearing capacity. With optical traps (Nobel Prize 2018!) we take a closer look at the behavior of proteins under tensile stress and simulate it numerically. We have just shown that two important representatives of this protein class are actually different - see research abstract. The result is relevant, for example, the result is relevant in regards to the healing of wounds. There, the cell increases the production of one protein and gives the cell resistance when exposed to high forces.
I am, therefore, not only lucky with my research topic from a scientific point of view, but I can also discuss it with non-experts, use entertaining and memorable images, and quickly convey the general relevance. Of course, this is particularly motivating for me, and I appreciate the special opportunities for an exchange with the public, which our University makes possible in particular through events such as the Night of Knowledge. The enthusiasm of the visitors and participants is exciting. However, the University does not only promote the transfer of knowledge there. Another example is the Department of Physics Teaching Prize, which is awarded to students and doctoral candidates for exemplary practice tutorials. Because the students were attracted by my enthusiasm, I received this prize last year for a tutorial on "Biophysics" - very positive feedback for me. What represents good teaching, I learned myself during my studies, but also at the Nobel Laureate Conference in Lindau, which was open to students from the University of Göttingen again this year.
Would you like to hear more about our research in this manner? University students have created a research podcast Mandelbrot Talks, for which I was able to contribute.
Text: Charlotta Lorenz with support of Prof. Dr. Sarah Köster and Dr. Sophie-Charlotte August
Charlotta Lorenz promoviert aktuell in Biophysik bei Prof. Dr. Sarah Köster an der Universität Göttingen.