Biology as a second language, Nature podcasts, and why fireflies glow in the dark

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Sandra Porter

Biology as a second-language: the immersion method
Language teachers say the best way to learn a language is by total immersion and even better, spending time in the country where it's spoken conversing with native speakers.

See it, hear it, speak it, use it!

Put yourself in a position where you must do these four things to survive (or at least find the restroom) and you will learn more rapidly than by any other method.

Graduate school serves a similar purpose for scientists. You go from an environment where your fellow students and co-workers spend time chatting about TV shows and bands to a place where people debate PCR techniques and hybridization conditions as a normal part of everyday conversation and even carry issues of Science or Nature to the restroom or on the bus. It really is a foreign country.

For a couple of years or so, you speak pidgeon science, anxious that a slight mistake in speaking might cost you an hour-long lecture on something you didn't even want to know about or force you to suffer the indignity of being treated like you know nothing - at least until you prove otherwise. Towards the end, you speak science like a native.

In your post-doc years you spend all your time with other native speakers, gradually losing your original tongue, and forgetting how to talk to non-scientists. After all, when it comes to science, why would you discuss it with other people anyway? They'd think you were strange. In my neighborhood, people are much more interested in whether all the houses are going to get converted to condos and whether the construction workers are illegal immigrants than the outcome of my latest SNP-finding project. Science? Sorry, that's so not on our radar.

All of this sheltered sort of communication can make your first teaching experience an incredible shock. I remember my first microbiology lecture after I left my post-doc position. Someone asked me what a molecule was. I was stunned. Partly because I thought the chemistry prerequisite was supposed to take care of those kinds of questions, partly because even though I knew what a molecule was, I was at a loss for how to explain it in a way that made sense to this particular student (she didn't know what chemical bonds were either).

Sure, I was a native speaker, but that didn't mean I could translate anything.

Someone would ask me a question and I'd respond like a nervous parent whose child has asked where babies come from.

Too much information, too little common sense.

I'd start at the very beginning, trying to consolidate ten years of college into half an hour. My victim's eyes would glaze over; they'd cautiously scan the room for the nearest exit, and politely glance at their cell-phone hoping someone would call and save them, oh please, oh please!

I suppose all scientists need a good editor.


How do you learn to speak biology if you don't have five spare years to invest in graduate school?

Did I mention that learning a new language is kind of painful? And sometimes embarrassing?

In fact, I think it's so embarrassing that some scientists resist collaborating with people in other fields because when they talk to people in other fields, they know they're back to speaking "pidgeon science" and if there's anything that scientists hate, scientists hate to sound stupid. I've heard computer scientists apologize to the audience before giving seminars related to biology (I think they got tired of being corrected and decided it would be safer to set expectations up front.) We feel the same way when we talk to computer scientists about data persistence and hierarchical data formats.

Well, I found a way to simulate listening to science-speak and even learn something in the process. Lately, we've had to take long car trips through radio wasteland. To kill time, I stocked up on podcasts. At first, I only collected episodes from "This American Life" and "The News from Lake Wobegon," but in the last trip I decided to branch out.

In our last trip, we listened to some podcasts from Nature. The production quality isn't always the greatest when you're listening in a car, but the content is wonderful! I think podcasts can be a truly great way to augment whatever you're learning about in science because they give you a chance to hear how the words are spoken out loud. Granted, the Nature announcer does pronounce some of the words in a kind of an amusing way (It's not his fault, it's just that I've been conditioned by years of Monty Python, to expect that anything spoken with a British accent is funny. And Chris Smith does sound a little like Eric Idle.)

One segment that I really enjoyed was from March 16, 2006. This podcast featured Joshua Finkelstein talking about luciferase, (warning - this is sound only, if you're in a library use earphones.) how it fluoresces and why some mutants of luciferase make a red light instead of other colors.

I don't know how many teachers are using these resources, but I found them to be quite enjoyable. Plus, when the announcers and scientists talk, their descriptions tend to be less dense than the descriptions that you get when they write. They speak in a friendly, conversational tone and sound more like a friend over coffee than a lecturer who uses every bit of jargon they know in a single sentence. This makes the stories much more interesting and far easier to listen to then than they are to read. Plus, unlike the journal, the podcasts are free. You can even subscribe through iTunes.

Check it out! Here's the archive of Nature podcasts from the last 3 years. I'm sure you'll enjoy them!