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By Amanda Johnson

Amanda Johnson-finalScience is more than just data sets, statistical significance, and p values. Behind every experiment and every breakthrough discovery is a scientist: someone motivated by his or her personal experiences, hungry for a deeper understanding about who they are. I am that scientist. I didn’t pursue a Ph.D. for the letters after my last name, the glory of naming a newly discovered gene, or the prestige of publishing my hard work in a peer reviewed journal. My desire stemmed from a personal quest to find out what made me different. Ultimately, I loved research because as a child I struggled with an immune disorder. By learning more about the biological mechanisms underpinning B cell development at the bench, perhaps I could learn more about myself in the process.

Armed with this unspoken narrative in my head throughout graduate school, I was naturally drawn to science communications. I know first-hand that bringing science to life through stories can have a powerful impact. After all, we are hard wired in our DNA to connect with stories. Ironically however, this personal journal of mine, the reason that pushed me to get my doctoral degree, remained an untold story. Presentations and committee meetings were first and foremost about experimental results, never highlighting my need to work weekend after weekend, fueled by a strong desire to gain insight into my own immune system: Why didn’t it function properly? Why couldn’t I make antibodies against vaccines like everyone else?

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My experience has shown me that stories can and should be leveraged to help others appreciate science and love it almost as much as I do. By humanizing scientists, we are able to peek behind the curtain at the person underneath the lab coat. I believe to tell a truly good and engaging science story, there needs to be a personal element or touch that 1) is attention grabbing, and 2) others can relate to. These types of stories virtually leap off of the pages of books, transforming a simple narrative from merely a protocol scribbled in a lab notebook or a poster at a medical meeting, illuminating what drives scientists personally to challenge the boundaries of innovation.

As researchers, we are already natural communicators. We talk about what our data means and how it impacts our field of study, living through our discoveries in some shape or form every day we work at the bench. But that isn’t enough. We owe it to ourselves and the broader community to bring in our stories to life in a more animated way—through a personal touch or perspective. By sharing our narratives in this way, they become universal, transcending complex jargon and enabling any audience to understand our language.

Amanda Johnson, Ph.D., is a scientific advisor at Spectrum, a health and science communications firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. Johnson earned her doctorate at the University of California San Diego, and has experience as a bench researcher and a teacher.