I’ve Got a Lot of Explaining to Do…

I’m a proud geek. Just as musicians have an uncanny way to compose, my brain is wired to understand the nuances of higher scale function resulting from matter interactions at the nano scale. I can’t run my washing machine at home but give me a molecular toolbox and I’ll find a way to engineer something that probably can’t be explained in under 140 characters on Twitter.

Now I’m not trying to boast so please don’t interpret it that way. The theories and science underpinning the work in my field are complex and compared with other disciplines, nanotechnology is a relatively new concept that has only recently started to gain more traction.

Like big hair, acid wash jeans, Top Gun, Wham and Madonna, nanotechnology first gained popularity in the eighties. And while many of those fads didn’t stand the test of time, the study of matter at its smallest scale has continued to evolve into a robust discipline with a myriad of potential applications in medicine, electronics, biomaterials and energy production.

In fact, nanotechnology is playing a bigger role than ever in our lives today…even though we might not all fully understand just how.

Consider this scenario:

The summer has finally arrived in Alberta. On vacation and camped out on the deck, you spray on some sunscreen. With your skin protection under control, it’s time to make your colleagues at work a little jealous. So, you pull out your phone, pump the tunes and take a few ‘selfies’ to showcase the stylish shades framing your face, the swim trunks that have replaced your standard office attire and your golf clubs, which got a workout earlier that morning. You then post everything on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, knowing your followers will share comments as you continue to soak in the vitamin D.

In your blissful state, nanotechnology is far from your thoughts. Yet, you’ve just had a huge dose.

The hand held gadgets used to rock out and self promote, the scratch resistant coating on your new sunglasses and the water wicking properties of your bathing suit – all these things were made possible by nanotechnology. It made your sunscreen more powerful and even helped your golf game by giving you access to stronger lighter and more durable equipment. And that’s just an instant in your backyard.

Can you imagine if you ventured further?

Although it is my passion, I realize that nanotechnology is a blip on most people’s radar. But that’s something I hope to change.

As someone who works in relatively uncharted territory, I’ve been on the receiving end of many questions and had the opportunity to share results with people from all walks of life. I have come to realize that the ability to communicate effectively is a special skill that must be carefully cultivated and continually refined.

I think in any profession, people can become complacent. As we grow more and more comfortable with our work, we assume a certain knowledge base and don’t take the time to consider how different audiences may perceive our messages.

We use jargon and complicate things with acronyms that are meaningless to those who aren’t in the loop. But most importantly, we miss the opportunity to engage, excite and empower others with our news.

As academics, scientists and researchers, we have a unique responsibility to ensure our findings extend well beyond the lab bench. In fact, the ability to explain the intricacies of our discoveries and their relevance to society may just be as important as the work itself.

Now I am not pretending to be an expert communicator. I don’t always get it right – both personally or professionally. But I am committed to learning from my mistakes and improving.

I’m a firm believer that by effectively sharing our messages facilitating knowledge exchange, we may just trigger the next generation of novel and emergent technologies. So in my mind, it is absolutely worth taking a bit of extra time to make sure the messages we put out are loud and clear.