Col. Robert B. Lim: Keeping Your Eyes Open in the Storm

Col. Robert B. Lim  must perform surgery in the middle of a sandstorm in the Iraq War.

Listen on iTunes!

Robert B. Lim, MD is a General Surgeon on active duty in the United States Army. He specializes in Advanced Laparoscopic Surgery, which includes robotics, single-incision laparoscopic, and bariatric surgery. He is also the editor of Surgery During Natural Disasters, Combat, Terrorist Attacks, and Crisis Situations (2016).

Scientists, They’re Just Like Us

We asked The Story Collider’s Artistic Director, Erin Barker, to share her behind-the-scenes experience working with Springer Nature authors in preparation for our live storytelling events. Here Erin remarks on a single moment from Col. Robert Lim‘s story, explaining how personal stories have the power to humanize science in an unparalleled way. Stay tuned for Col. Lim’s story airing this Friday, February 17th! 

Written by Erin Barker

At the Story Collider’s “Surgeons” show with Springer Storytellers in DC last October, military surgeon Col. Rob Lim described standing at the border of Iraq in darkness before the initial invasion began in 2003, counting down, waiting for shock and awe. “We saw the planes go over, heard the artillery fire, it’s happening,” Lim said in his story. “I turned to one of my buddies and said, ‘How do we do our laundry?’”

Erin Barker, Artistic Director of The Story Collider

This, to me, is the perfect example of what makes the kind of true, personal stories The Story Collider and Springer Storytellers produce so special. We often hear about medicine and international conflict, but we don’t often hear about the everyday, human aspects of being a person embroiled in these things. We can learn countless facts and figures, but to really understand what it feels like to be a part of it, in the moment? You can’t find that anywhere other than a true, personal story from someone’s life. These stories allow us a temporary window into someone else’s heart and mind, into an experience that we may never have. They allow us to connect with someone we’ve never met. And building this connection between scientists and the public is becoming ever more important.

These stories allow us a temporary window into someone else’s heart and mind, into an experience that we may never have.

For example, Stanford psychologist Susan Fiske has found that the general public respects scientists, but doesn’t quite trust them. According to Fiske, there are two factors that influence our perceptions of strangers: competence — how knowledgeable and capable we seem; and warmth — whether we have our our audience’s best interests in mind. In order to be seen as trustworthy, and communicate effectively with the public, we need to be perceived as both competent and warm. And in fact, warmth matters a lot. In her 2006 paper “Universal dimensions of social cognition: warmth and competence,” Dr. Fiske tells us, “warmth is judged before competence, and warmth judgments carry more weight in affective and behavioral reactions.”

Unfortunately, when she conducted her study, asking her subjects to rate different professions and groups of people according to these qualities, scientists ranked high in competence but low in warmth.

I probably don’t need to tell you that scientists often focus on competence, and even deliberately tamp down perception of warmth to emphasize competence. It makes sense when you consider that, in many ways, scientists are trained to reduce their intrinsic warmth. It’s a natural instinct for a profession that, quite rightly, values objectivity. But when we focus on competence at the expense of warmth, we miss out on a valuable opportunity to connect with and inspire our audience.

So can scientists emphasize our warmth? According to Dr. Fiske, people trust people they think are like themselves — people who share their values and goals. And not only that, but they will go out of their way to support these folks. When we share stories that reveal our humanity, our imperfections, our vulnerabilities, our humor, we show our audience that we’re like them, and that we’re trustworthy.

When Col. Lim shared his story with our audience, he became something even more than a surgeon who has saved lives on and off the battlefield — he became a real, live human being. Someone we feel like we know, and want to root for. When I worked with Col. Lim on his story in the weeks leading up to the show, I encouraged him to include not only the kind of details that let the audience visualize the experience, but also those that let us in on his mindset. For example, the fact that he was unable to shower for eighteen days as they made the long, slow trip into Baghdad. Hearing his human reactions to these things makes us think, Scientists–they’re just like us.


Why is the Why Difficult for Scientists?

In this featured guest post from the COMPASS blog*, Karen McLeod (Interim Executive Director of COMPASS) asks scientists why, when their passion for their job is so evident in the work that they do, they rarely share their sentiments with the rest of the world.

Why Ask Why

If you want your work to resonate, you need to be able to talk about why it matters. If you only have 5 minutes of someone’s attention (or even 30 seconds!), they’re more likely to listen to your ‘why’ than your what. And, sharing your ‘why’ creates more than interest – it forges connections, inspires, and builds trust.

But doing so flies in the face of our ‘thou shalt not talk about oneself’ mantra (and its close cousin ‘thou shalt only write in the third person as dryly as possible’). Fortunately, this norm is beginning to shift, with cracks in the armor like “This is what a scientist looks like.” But for most of us, talking about ourselves is still daunting.

What fuels your fire?

Are you willing to channel your inner Aristotle and embrace the Philosophy in your PhD for more effective #scicomm? Image courtesy of Mary Harrsh via flickr.

Are you willing to channel your inner Aristotle for more effective #scicomm? Time to embrace the “Ph” in our PhDs.
Image courtesy of Mary Harrsh via flickr.

Presumably, we all know why we do what we do. The reasons we burn the midnight oil, miss our kid’s soccer games, and go to school for a very long time (I personally love the look on undergraduates’ faces when I say I went to school for 10 years beyond my baccalaureate). Perhaps what keeps us going is the joy of discovery, sheer curiosity, a sense of wonder about how the world works, or knowing that we’ve made a difference.

It’s certainly not about a paycheck (despite continued assertions to this effect, even in Congress, where John Holdren was the recipient of this line of questioning about climate scientists). And yet, in our communication trainings when we ask scientists why they do what they do, we often hear something along these lines:

I don’t know.
I’ve never thought about that.
No one’s ever asked me that question.
Isn’t this supposed to be about my data, not me?
I couldn’t possibly go there. 

Our scientific training to be as objective as possible is absolutely essential. But, as Brooke shared, a focus on data, not people; being right before being open; avoiding talking about yourself; and tenure as a precursor to speaking up create major roadblocks to effective communication. As scientists, we cling so tightly to our need to be credible and objective that we fail to communicate our passion.

Does passion equal bias?

At a recent training, early career social science students were especially reticent to address the underlying motivations for their work. They thought that if they admitted that they cared deeply about equity or social justice, they wouldn’t be seen as credible or objective.

Environmental scientists also struggle with this, and especially with walking what can be a fine line between science and advocacy. For those who study medicine or public health, it goes without saying that an ethic of care underlies their work. But somehow those who study the other 8.7 million species on the planet lose their credibility if they chose to acknowledge the values that underpin their work?

The reality is that context matters. We are communicating our science and the underlying motivations for it in a larger social context – and often a highly politicized one. And although we may not have comprehensive knowledge of that context, we can acknowledge that it exists and use what we know to engage in a way that resonates with our audience, rather than further polarizing the dialogue. Yale’s Cultural Cognition project is an amazing resource on this topic, and this recent paper in PNAS reviews #scicomm in a politicized environment.

Passion is not equivalent to bias. But figuring out how to communicate your ‘why’ in a way that accounts for the larger social and political context of your work is incredibly important.

Motivations matter

For more on starting with your why, check out Simon Sinek’s TED talk and other resources.

For more on starting with your why, check out Simon Sinek’s TED talk and other resources.

The many why’s that underlie our work DO affect the questions we chose to ask and the puzzles we seek to unravel. Sharing your ‘why’ in a way that resonates is key to making your science matter to others.

Last week I sat next to a scientist colleague in a meeting who, in the midst of describing his research said, “I’m doing this because I want to save the world.” He later caveated that it may have been a stupid thing to say. Much to the contrary, I found it refreshing. And while your reason for understanding how the world works may not be about saving it, I’m heartened to see a cultural shift within science where we more openly acknowledge our why’s.

*This article was originally published on October 8, 2014. It has been reposted with the permission of COMPASS Science Communication, Inc., a non-profit, non-advocacy organization whose vision is to see more scientists engage effectively in the public discourse about the environment.


Marie Crandall: The Golden Hour of Trauma

After witnessing too many haunting incidents of preventable fatalities in the ER, Dr. Marie Crandall sets out to change the social environment that allows gun violence to jeopardize the lives of citizens. Listen below or stream the official podcast!

Listen on iTunes!

Marie Crandall, MD, MPH, FACS is Professor of Surgery at the University of Florida Jacksonville and Director of Research for the Department of Surgery. She is also a contributing author of Common Problems in Acute Care Surgery (Springer, 2017).

A Seismologist’s Guide to Storytelling

On December 15, 2016, Springer Nature Storytellers hosted a show in conjunction with the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. Susan Hough shared a moving story of her experience in Port-au-Prince, where she was sent to lead a deployment of seismometers in the wake of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. Just last week was the anniversary of this devastating natural disaster and here Susan reflects on her experience as a Springer Nature Storyteller, sharing her involvement in the aftermath of the earthquake. Stay tuned for her podcast coming soon! 

Written by Susan Hough

I didn’t hesitate to say yes when offered the opportunity to be one of the storytellers at the Springer Nature sponsored Story Collider event at the 2016 AGU meeting.  I’ve been telling stories of one sort or another since I first learned how to use a pencil.

It did not escape me that, while all of my past storytelling has been on paper, this time it would be on stage.  At the beginning of my career my response would likely have been different;  even a straightforward 13-minute AGU talk was terrifying enough.  With enough preparation I could make it through talks, but I always felt like I had checked my brain at the door.  The worst part was dealing with, or rather not dealing with, questions afterwards.

But over the nearly three decades (gulp) since receiving my PhD, I’ve mostly gotten over the stage jitters, so the idea of telling a personal story on stage seemed like a reasonable thing to agree to.

As a seismologist who has pursued a variety of projects including chasing earthquakes to distant corners of the globe, I’ve had my share of field adventures, and several possible stories came to mind immediately.  Then Lucy Frisch sent along a link to Aerin Jacob’s story, “Stuck in the Serengeti.”  I listened, enthralled, as Jacob recounted her adventures.  My immediate thought afterwards, was, compared to cheetahs and machine guns in the Serengeti, I got nothing.

But one nanosecond later I knew which story I wanted to tell.  After bouncing the idea off of Lucy, the writer in me sprang into action.  Within about an hour I had put together a  first draft.  The first part of the story was easy to write, a simple matter of describing events.  The closing of the story—the take-away lessons from my (mis-)adventures in Haiti—didn’t come quite as easily.   When I had a chance to talk by phone to Lucy and Story Collider’s Artistic Director, Erin Barker, in early November, I read through my draft, noting that the ending still needed some work.  Erin made a couple of terrific suggestions; whether or not I did her ideas justice, I’m not sure, but I tried, and could see how they improved the story.

The ending fell into place over the next few weeks as I continued to think about, and practice, the story.  The words hadn’t fallen into place immediately because, even though my story had happened six years ago and I’ve thought about it any number of times since then, it was the first time I had tried to actually articulate, and share, the lessons I had learned from it.  Before any story can be shared, it has to be crafted, a process that can stretch one’s thoughts towards new horizons – in particular if one is challenged to tell a different, more personal kind of story than scientists are used to telling.  The first revelation of my Story Collider experience wasn’t in the sharing, but in the crafting.

The sharing part turned out to be a little more than I’d bargained for.  I realized that my nonchalance about telling a story on stage had been premature.  Sure, I had several decades of talks under my belt, but this time there would be no slides, or notes.  Just me with a microphone, alone on that stage.  I was not blessed with a photographic memory, and as soon as I started practicing telling my story without a draft in front of me, I realized what a challenge it would be.   And so I practiced, and practiced, and practiced.  My morning drive to the office takes a little more than 10 minutes, so I’d tell my story to myself as I drove to work.   It became the bedtime story I told to myself at night.  Once at AGU, the walk from my hotel to the Moscone Center was just long enough to run through the story in my head.  Even when I knew that I knew the story like the back of my hand, I practiced and practiced and practiced.  The only thing I had to fear, of course, was fear itself: the reappearance of my old nemesis, stage fright, that would cause my brain to fly out the window.

Then the big day arrived.  I stood up and started to tell my story, at a venue that turned out to be, strangely enough, outside…only to be interrupted by children talking loudly in the audience, which made me lose my train of thought completely.  I slinked off the stage and hid behind a wall, dumb-struck, mortified, and utterly disappointed that all the practice had been for naught.

Never in my entire life have I been so overjoyed to wake up, and be able to laugh at my creative rendition of the classic college nightmare.  When the time came to stand and deliver for realz, the hours of practice were not for naught; the story was nearly seamless, and seemed to be well-received by the intrepid crowd that had braved the stormy weather to attend.

The second revelation of the experience came afterwards, when I was contacted about putting together a short article based on my story. I realized that some stories aren’t meant to be shared on paper, they’re meant to be shared out loud; precisely the personal kinds of stories that scientists don’t usually tell.  The final revelation followed immediately, namely an appreciation of the genius of the Story Collider mission to bring science to a broader audience by bringing scientists to a broader audience.  As people.  Alone on that stage.  No slides.  No props.  Those terrifying 13 minutes were not only, hands down, the highlight of the meeting for me, but I expect will reach a broader audience than anything else I said or did at that week.  The only thing I’m left wondering is, when can I do it again?

Do you want to be a Springer Nature Storyteller in 2017? If you have a story you’d like to share, whether at one of our live shows or written and featured here on Before the Abstract, please get in touch through the instructions on our Pitch Page.