How would you describe genomics without using any scientific jargon?

Yesterday was the Annual Student Conference at The Institute of Cancer Research, London. As part of the ICR's Communications team, we helped run a session about the myriad ways that science can (and should) be communicated more effectively.

During this session my colleague Rob Dawson (@BioSciFan on Twitter) introduced a fun tool called the The Up-Goer Five Text Editor. This tool lets you edit text…but only by using the 1,000 most common words in the English language.

It was inspired by an XKCD comic which used the same approach to try to explain how an Apollo moon rocket works. Using this tool really makes you appreciate that just about every scientific word you might use is not on the list. So it is a good way of making you think about how to communicate science to a lay audience, completely free of jargon.

I thought I would have a go at explaining genomics. I couldn't even use the words 'science', 'machine', or 'blueprint' (let alone 'gene', 'DNA', or 'molecule'). Here is my attempt:

In every cell of our bodies, there is a written plan that explains how that cell should make all of the things that it needs to make. A cell that grows hair is very different to a cell that is in your heart or brain. However, all cells still have the same plan but different parts of the plan are turned on in different cells.

We first understood what the full plan looks like for humans in 2003. We can use computers  to make sense of the plan and to learn more about how many parts are needed to make a human (about 20,000). The better we understand the plan, the more we might be able to make human lives better.

You can edit my version online but I encourage people to try explaining your own field of work using this tool.

And the award for the most-retweeted-tweet-of-a-photo-of-a-slide-from-a-presentation-of-mine goes to…

On November 20th, on the last day of my employment at UC Davis, I gave an exit seminar. Jenna Gallegos, a PhD student at UC Davis — who works on the awesome Intron-Mediated Enhancement (IME) project under the supervision of Alan Rose — posted several tweets from my talk including this photo of one of my slides:

This tweet continued to generate interest (retweets, likes, and mentions) for most of the 20th November and for many subsequent days afterwards. The latest retweet of this tweet was today: 16 days after the original tweet! I find this amazing especially as the original slide deals with the topic of genome assembly. At the time of writing the tweet has had 369 retweets and 277 likes

I'm pleased that people have found my jigsaw analogy useful. Some people commented that this isn't the best possible analogy and pointed out various ways that it could be more technically accurate (including suggestions of shredding copies of books and trying to piece together the original).

While I accept that this isn't the most scientific way of depicting the many problems and challenges of genome assembly, it is hopefully an accessible way of illustrating the problem. Nearly everyone has tried putting a jigsaw together, but not everyone has tried reconstituting a shredded book. My exit seminar was aimed at a very broad audience and so I pitched this slide accordingly.

People can follow Jenna on twitter (@FoodBeerScience) and should, at the very least, check out her awesome twitter bio. If you want to know more about her work, here is a recent review of IME that she wrote:

Why I twitter

I cannot sit on the fence. I like twitter and what it offers. I have learned things I never would, built genuine relationships with international people who I would have perhaps have only met over a quick coffee at a conference. And I have changed the way I speak about science.

This post by Mark Brandon sets out nine great reasons as to why he finds Twitter so useful, many of which relate to science communication.

I believe twitter is a strong positive for science, and it is a worthwhile investment of your time.

I completely agree with just about everything he has to say. It's a good list.