Recently, a friend texted me with a question about how new vaccines are being developed for the coronavirus: “Why does the best way to vaccinate people need to involve injecting people with parts of a virus and then waiting for the body to make antibodies against the virus? Why can’t you just skip a step and give people the antibodies they need?”
(Not a typical weeknight text thread, I know, but the current pandemic has made budding virologists of us all.)
My response: “There are a bunch of reasons, but here’s an important one: If you just inject antibodies into the body, they’ll last a little while, but then the body will break them down, and they won’t work anymore. But if you show the body some of the virus and let the body learn how to make antibodies to the virus, then the immune system can make the right antibodies as often as it needs to for as long as the infection lasts, and it will remember how to make more antibodies later on if you get exposed to the same infection again.” I went on, “It’s a ‘give a man a fish/teach a man to fish’ concept. The immune system is really elegant, and scientists are better off just giving it some help with a vaccine and then letting it do its job, rather than trying to do the immune system’s job from scratch.”
That conversation reminded me of the many different ways opportunities can arise to help people understand how their bodies work, how that changes when a medical condition develops and how research and medicine address those changes.
Scientific concepts are too often obscured behind jargon and lack of context. In my time in academia and in science communication, I’ve noticed common threads in effective communication that I like to consider when I want to reach a listener who isn’t immersed in the subject matter at hand:
Scales of size
The science behind human health takes place across an enormous range of sizes. A given drug’s activity at the molecular level is understood in sizes and distances like the angstrom, one ten-billionth of a meter. Highly precise surgeries are understood in millimeters, or one thousandth of a meter. And the entire human body is roughly one and a half to two meters in height. That’s eleven (factors of ten to consider. Although people tend to be comfortable imagining the differences in objects large enough to be seen with the naked eye, things get a little less familiar on the microscopic end of the scale. For instance, many people don’t realize that the two most common causes of infections, bacteria and viruses, are very different in size – with bacteria being on average 10-100 times (or 1-2 factors of ten) larger than viruses. So when we use terms like “protein,” “white blood cell,” “virus,” or “nanoparticle,” it’s helpful to offer a point of reference for context: “This nanoparticle is small enough to be injected into the bloodstream.” “Hundreds of molecule XYZ can enter muscle cells through tiny pores in the cell surface.”
What’s made in the lab and what isn’t
Biotechnology imitates life: drugs are not created as entirely novel chemicals assembled one atom at a time, but rather draw from existing organic materials. Historically, certain medicines, like penicillin, have been isolated from plants or fungi. The hormone insulin, which people with diabetes use therapeutically, is nearly identical to the insulin that people without diabetes already produce in their bodies. And cell therapies are based on entire intact cells carefully grown in petri dishes, which do many of the same complex activities that the cells in our bodies do: they break down nutrients, communicate with each other and make new compounds.
This is worth noting because science communicators must be careful to clarify when they are talking about a part of the body versus part of a therapy—or versus a part of an infectious disease, when applicable. For example, in the case of insulin use in diabetes, it may be helpful to refer to “therapeutic insulin” or “injected insulin” to distinguish the therapy that comes in a vial from the protein that the pancreas makes in someone without diabetes.
In the sphere of viruses and vaccines, certain types of vaccines include genetic material from a family of viruses called adenoviruses as a tool to deliver parts of the disease-causing virus (for example, the virus causing COVID-19) the vaccine is designed to prevent. This means that researchers are trying to use a relatively harmless virus to help your immune system learn to protect you from more harmful virus – the ‘teach a man to fish’In everyday parlance, for instance, “negative feedback” might refer to criticism, whereas in STEM fields, the phrase describes a process that regulates itself, like a thermostat controlling the room temperature. Words like “normalize,” “plastic,” and “nuclear” can take on different meanings even among different scientific disciplines. It is the science communicator’s responsibility to recognize terms like these and ensure that they’re being used in the manner most commonly understood by a given audience.
Biology is complex, not incomprehensible
Biological systems—bacteria, plants, organs, humans—are very complex and varied. Biological processes like healing muscle tissue, converting fat stores to energy or clearing an infection are influenced by many other factors inside the body and outside it. However, complexity need not be a barrier to a reader’s or listener’s understanding. A helpful question to ask yourself as you prepare any scientific explanation is, “What are the conditions that make this [fact/process] true?” Your audience may not need to know every parameter involved, but taking the time to explain some of the essential parts of a process may do wonders for their understanding of a complex topic.
Graphic created by: Autumn Von Plinsky