Get into this car and learn about some *science*

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My former people-moving chariot. No, I did not take children to soccer games.

For the sole purpose of practicing my science communication skills, I’ve taken up Uber-driving. It is my genius way of making small talk about science and research with unsuspecting strangers. If I mess up and say something ridiculous or unclear, no worries! A new stranger will cycle in every five minutes or so.

Yes, I am stretching the truth by saying I took up Uber for this reason alone (turns out I can’t live on my graduate stipend alone – a rant I will save for another day.) The ride-sharing app is an enjoyable way to make decent, extra cash. I get to meet so many new people and work whatever hours I like, which is perfect with an over-filled and ever-fluctuating graduate student schedule. Not every rider is pleasant, nor chatty.

But surprisingly, mostly everyone is both of those things.

Getting in the back of a stranger’s car can be awkward, and enduring complete silence for the duration of your ride can be even more so. So, the usual questions a rider asks an Uber driver on a college campus: “Are you a student? What do you study? How did you start driving for Uber?”  Plus, my license plate is a Virginia Agricultural tag that reads “COWS”. That is enough of a conversation piece by itself.

After replying that I’m a PhD student studying Dairy Science, very often the conversation ends there. “Nice,” they will reply dryly. But more often I am met with genuine curiosity, “What do you do with that? What kind of job do you see yourself getting?”

This is the beginning of the true test. I have a short period of time to describe what I do, why I do it, and most importantly, how it relates to them. I’ve found that it’s actually best to start with the relating part first. You can usually tell early what will strike a chord – some are concerned about the environment, some just love ice cream, some just want to know if you work with “those cows with holes in them” (yes, I do).

What’s just as important as emphasizing the important points of my story though, is listening to the rider’s story. Most of them are undergraduates who have no clue what their future holds, but that is something with which I can relate as well.

I’ve learned to give non-scientists the benefit of the doubt, something I didn’t use to do quite as much. This, I believe, is an important step to becoming an effective and compassionate teacher, person, and advocate of science.

It is reassuring when I feel I have established common ground between myself as a scientist, and someone who knows very little about agriculture. However, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, not everyone will get the point no matter how eloquently you describe your story.

But surprisingly, most everyone does.

-J

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