Found in Translation: A Professor Searches for a Public Voice

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

April 22, 2013

When I was a child growing up in Puerto Rico, I was interested in science but did not know any scientists, nor did I understand how science was done. My father worked in the newspaper business and would occasionally find articles and opinion pieces written by Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan that had been syndicated and translated into Spanish by local newspapers. He would cut them out neatly and bring them home as special gifts. I was allowed to read them only after I had finished my homework.

Those short essays were great treats—windows into a wonderful but inaccessible world of possibilities and discovery. Back then I often wondered why scientists did not write more for the public.

Now I know: because it's hard work. But it's also worth the effort.

I know that because I recently published my first opinion essay as a fellow of the Op-Ed Project's Public Voices Fellowship Program. This yearlong experience is designed to help professors like me reach beyond the academic audience and share our ideas and experiences with a larger lay audience.

So I went against my instincts and wrote an essay about nature versus nurture that brought in not only my expertise as a neuroscientist but also my experience as a parent of triplets. Linking the two felt very foreign to me. And seeing my thoughts out there, in the "real world," all of a sudden felt like picking up the microphone in a crowded room that had suddenly gone quiet—powerful and awkward.

On the one hand, I have never been able to stir up as much conversation about topics that I care deeply about as I did with that 800-word essay. On the other hand, the last time I felt this exposed, I was 13 and my mom was calling my aunt to find me a date with my cousin for the junior prom.

What was going on? As a researcher and professor, I spend much of my scholarly time constructing essays to articulate and support new scientific hypotheses. I have defended my team's work in front of Nobel laureates and other scholars whose training is surpassed only by their critical nature. Sure, presenting in academic forums also makes me a little nervous, but, surprisingly for me, not as much as publishing a lay article for the public. Why?

I started reflecting on this during my last meeting with the other Op-Ed Project fellows. There I was, sitting in a room of hyper-trained faculty members, all with really great things to share from a range of disciplines, but most feeling just as I did—a little self-conscious about sharing their ideas and insights. Sometimes, as we traded stories, it sounded as if we were at a support-group meeting.

We discussed such things as our own roles and responsibilities in the public discourse and what our "expertise" really was. Common among our experiences was a general struggle to translate our well-tuned academic voices into public voices. Wrestling with those concepts in the company of my colleagues did not necessarily make it easier, but it certainly made it more fun.

In the relatively contained microcosm of my academic field, I know where my expertise starts and, more important, where it ends. My job is to chart out new areas of knowledge and add them to a "knowledge map" that my colleagues, past and present, have been charting for years. Errors in mapping new knowledge are costly because new paths based on incorrect facts can get us all lost. Written articles in academe are frequently referenced years, decades, or even centuries later, and the arguments can last much longer than the person making them.

That discourse stands in sharp contrast to public discourse, which feels more like a conversation where everybody and anybody, from Joe the plumber to the president of the United States, can chime in. The emotions and personal experiences (in addition to facts) that lead to a given opinion are not only tolerated; they are welcome. Some opinions can be inconsequential, but others can help spread ideas and even influence policies. It's important for experts, particularly those from groups that are not usually represented in the public discourse, to enter into this conversation.

But it takes a reframing of the academic mind-set to enter public discourse. Writing the opinion piece required me to tap into another set of skills I use daily but don't normally associate with producing written scholarly work: teaching skills. In writing op-eds, as in teaching, I had to shed all of the shorthand jargon I am used to and search for terminology that was broadly accessible.

While writing, I found that the more emphasis I placed on being detailed and precise, the less space I had to make my argument relevant. Therefore, I had to learn to balance precision and relevance in an 800-word essay—a feat that took a lot of editing and feedback from friends and students. I had to let go of the thought that the short essay would achieve the same goal as my scholarly work, that is, to help conclusively settle an important argument or discovery. Instead, in the process of writing, I started thinking about the essay the way I think about my own interventions in discussion classes—as a way to clarify inconsistencies, to introduce a new viewpoint, or simply to stir discussion of an important topic. And I found myself embracing discussion and arguments, much as I would do when I teach.

In the process of writing the piece—in wrestling with precise wording and explaining relevance—my scholarship grew. In that sense, and also similar to teaching, the project was not a one-way didactic experience. Putting my ideas into words and having their importance and relevance examined and questioned polished and improved my scholarship.

The feedback I got from my opinion essay reminded me of another scholarly activity I am frequently involved in: conversations at conferences. At conferences I find myself bouncing around ideas, some of them really off the mark, with colleagues from different fields. Putting my ideas out there gives me a sense of their value and also results in cross-pollination and refinement of the ideas. Similarly, by sharing my opinions (which are informed by my scholarship but are opinions nonetheless) in the op-ed format, I was able to both expand my scholarship and assess how useful my knowledge is to the public.

Stepping outside the ivory tower took me, as an academic scientist, out of my comfort zone and even made me feel vulnerable. But as a person who once stood outside the ivory tower—well, technically once sat at a kitchen table in Puerto Rico—I think it is valuable to open these windows to the outside world and let our ideas air out.

Daniel Colón-Ramos is an assistant professor of cell biology in the School of Medicine at Yale University.