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How to Explain the Value of Modeling and Simulation to Your Grandma

As most scientists can attest, it’s not always easy to communicate the importance of your work to non-scientists. I personally experienced this when my fiercely intelligent grandmother, a former elementary school teacher, asked to read a copy of my dissertation. When I asked her what she thought of it, I realized that her understanding of the concepts I was trying to convey was much like that of a kid in a Charlie Brown cartoon listening to a teacher talk. She perceived my dissertation as though it was written in a foreign language and got little out of it.

The benefits of modeling and simulation in bringing new, safe therapies to patients have been well established. But, if we cannot clearly communicate these benefits to a diverse audience, then we will be dramatically limited in our ability to implement this powerful approach to drug development. In this blog post, I will propose some ideas on how you can improve your ability to communicate the value to modeling and simulation in model based drug development to anyone, even your grandma.

  1.  Consider your audience. The first step in being able to explain your science to anyone is to think about who your audience is. I find that the audience for scientific communication often falls into one of three groups: scientists in your field, scientists outside your field, and non-scientists. The first group—your peers— already understands scientific principles and vocabulary. You don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining the value of your work with them. Communicating with the second group—scientists outside your field— is a situation that I spend most of my time in with my peers at Certara. While my colleagues tend to be biomathematicians and pharmacometricians, my training is in cellular and molecular pharmacology. We share the same foundation in pharmacology, we just use different tools to solve problems. When communicating with this type of audience, you need to focus on the bigger picture of the problem you’re trying to solve and not as much on the details of the methods. The last group—the non-scientists— is the biggest group and the hardest to communicate your ideas to as they aren’t familiar with many of the principles that form that foundation of your work. These leads me to point #2.
  2. Get your audience hooked. You first need to “sell” the value of your work. As my graduate school adviser used to say, “You need a hook to grab your audience’s attention!” What is your hook? Maybe you work in pediatric drug development. An easy way to engage your audience might be to start talking about the ethical challenges in conducting pediatric trials in kids. Or perhaps your research is on the mechanisms of drug-drug interactions (DDIs). You might start by asking if anyone’s ever had a pharmacist ask about concurrent medications. By relating your work to the problems that people face in their everyday lives, you make your work both relevant and accessible.
  3. Embrace the power of analogies. Modeling and simulation is a cutting-edge discipline that draws heavily on complex math and systems biology dynamics. These abstract ideas can be difficult for lay audiences to grasp. This is where the power of analogies comes in. For example, receptor theory is a key concept in pharmacology. But, if I were to start talking about the Michaelis-Menton equation or receptor occupancy, I might get a bunch of blank stares from a group of non-scientists. By contrast, I’ve often successfully explained this concept using the analogy of a key (the drug) fitting precisely into a lock (the cellular receptor) to open a door (cause signal transduction leading to a physiological effect).
  4. Draw on the board. One of the best pieces of advice that I got during my training was to go “draw on the board” whenever I was stumped by a question from an audience. Many people grasp difficult concepts more easily when they are explained using a picture. Also, the act of having to explain something visually often makes you think more deeply about it and helps you to break down a concept into more easily digested components.
  5. Hone your elevator pitch. If you had to explain your work in model based drug development in one minute or less, what would you say? A well thought out “pitch” would likely focus on the takeaways of your work: the problems it solved, not methodological details. Again, being forced to convey your message concisely will encourage you to think about the larger context of your research.
  6. Tell your story. The best communicators are storytellers at heart. They know how to set the stage of a problem, explain how they addressed it, and end with clear and compelling conclusions. But there’s more to powerful storytelling than merely having a cogent narrative. While science itself is about being rational and objective, most people are drawn to it for larger reasons. They are fascinated by the wonder of how the body works. Or they have seen a loved one struggling with a disease, and they hope to make a small difference through working in biomedical research. These reasons are what make people passionate about science. If you can break down a body of research into clear, logical steps and inject some of your passion, then you will get your audience excited about the science as well.

For more information on the art of scientific communication, I suggest that you read “Be a Model Communicator and Sell Your Models to Anyone” by Peter Bonate. Our CMO, Ellen Leinfuss, has written a book review in CPT: Pharmacometrics & Systems Pharmacology that provides a helpful summary of Dr. Bonate’s book. What strategies have you found to be helpful in communicating your ideas on model based drug development? Let me know in the comments section!

The progress of biomedical research owes a major debt to people who volunteer in clinical drug trials. At Certara, we’re committed to helping sponsors meet impending transparency and disclosure requirements for communicating research results to clinical trial volunteers. To do this, we’ve entered into an exclusive partnership with CISCRP to develop and disseminate lay language clinical trial results summaries. Please watch our webinar on this subject to learn more.

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