A few months ago, I took on two challenges 1) introducing students at Mount Holyoke College to the fascinating world of toxicants, which, as they all now know– it’s toxi-c-a-n-t-s – unless of course it's a biologically produced toxin (and each time I reminded them of this, I was reminded of my graduate school advisor, the one we called “the pedant,” and shudder,) and 2) asking them to write about toxicants (and in one case, a toxin) for publication in the very public Encyclopedia of Earth or EOE (www.eoearth.org). (And write they did - articles ranging from PBDEs to Atrazine to Synthetic musks - something I hadn't know even existed!)
For some it was a slog. As one student wrote, and I’m sure more than a few students thought, “I never realized writing for the EOE would be so tedious.” For others it seemed a breeze. For me it was nerve-wracking. Particularly after I had the brilliant idea that each student should send her article out for review to whatever expert on her topic she felt most appropriate.
“Don’t be surprised if you don’t hear back.”
But then something amazing happened. Scientists wrote back. Scientists - many who are respected in their field, who are pressed for time, who let reviews for prestigious journals sit on their desk until pinged for the tenth time by the journal editor - these scientists took the time to review articles written by undergraduates struggling to comprehend and communicate their research.
It was frightening.
“I didn’t open the response for a day,” said one student about her “expert review.” Another found a sea of red marks – comments, corrections, and No! Wrong! Wrong again – followed by helpful suggestions and further reading.
So was it worth the ego-bruising effort? (And I'm not referring just to the students here.) I had asked my students to write not only for the highest level of review, but also in the end, to put themselves out there in a way that many scientists haven’t dared, communicating a highly technical topic - one which they'd just learned about virtually on their own, to the public and in plain language.
It’s something that I never felt comfortable with until I was out of the lab. Until I felt I had nothing to lose. But these days it is often necessary for scientists to communicate not just with each other but with the public, and it is my hope that that’s the lesson that sticks.
Maybe the difference between “toxicant” and “toxin” is pedantic. But sometimes you’ve just got to get it right. I think they did.