Getting To The “So What?” Of Your Science

Galindo MB 2006

Handwritten message box from my own COMPASS training as a graduate student (click to enlarge)

Recently, I rediscovered a description of my PhD research produced at a COMPASS training I attended in 2006. I deciphered my messy handwriting to find that I had used the analogy of how people move between cities to explain why I used DNA to track movements of marine plankton between populations. In both cases, understanding how many and how often individuals change locations can inform what might happen if these connections are disrupted. (Think about a freeway shutting down between San Francisco and Los Angeles.) As movement between places is reduced, so is the flow of goods and services, thereby isolating populations.

It turns out that my early attempts at finding the “so what” of my science used the very same tool that we still use at COMPASS today: The Message Box. At all COMPASS trainings (which typically range from half-day to three-day events), the Message Box is how we help scientists distill their science into the most essential and intriguing pieces. These are the key ideas with which you can build a firm foundation of understanding about your research in conversation with almost any audience. It’s not about dumbing anything down. Instead, the Message Box illuminates the heart of your science and inspires your audience to want to learn more.

But getting from the incredible amount of knowledge you have about your research to these core elements isn’t easy. Liz and I recently co-taught a short course on science communication for a group of fifteen enthusiastic and engaged graduate students here at the University of Washington. For our students, my vintage Message Box seemed to be an encouraging example of how even esoteric science (plankton DNA?) could relate to everyday life. Echoing the feedback we have heard from the many scientists who have participated in COMPASS trainings over the past decade, here are some of the top lessons our students identified in refining their Message Boxes:

  • It’s tempting to describe your work in very general terms in an effort to avoid overwhelming details, but your audience needs specifics to understand your particular contribution to the issue.
  • Like we recently heard from Erica, seeing the story (and yourself as a character) in your science is hard… but essential. You have to find a balance between being accurate and compelling.
  • Message Box refinement is an iterative process. Almost without exception, the final version often looks nothing like the first.
  • And finally, feedback is critical! And most helpful when it comes from someone outside your discipline. Your lab mates are less likely to catch jargon and concepts unfamiliar to people outside your field.

So, now that you know what you’re getting into, we invite you to have a go at your own Message Box! You can download the relevant chapter from Escape From the Ivory Tower and a copy of the Message Box here. We’d love to hear how it goes… What works? What doesn’t? And, most importantly, how do YOU answer the question “so what?”

And, remember you are not alone! From past participants in our trainings (find them on Twitter) to members of the recent SciFund Challenge outreach training class (some  bravely share their Message Boxes here), there is a growing community of scientists who are leading the way.

Update: For additional materials, see our Communication Tools and Resources page.

About Heather Galindo

Heather Galindo was Assistant Director of Science at COMPASS.


  1. Vicki Martin says:

    Hi Heather,
    Thanks so much for this well-timed blog! I’m on the other side of the planet, down under in Australia and I have been working my way through the book. Just yesterday I had my first attempt at a message box for my own PhD. It’s really useful – thank you! But I do have some refining to do yet. It’s really helping me not only focus on my research question, but also prepare for a conference presentation to an audience I don’t normally speak to. I thought I should mention that one of the academics here recommended your book, and he pointed out that sometimes working out how far out to define the issue is sometime a tricky balance. For example, we might want to save the world (that’s something many postgrads are motivated to do!), but that “issue” is too broad and not useful in really explaining what the research is attempting to address. So now I’m trying to work out the most relevant level to talk about so that it all makes sense. Thanks again – I really find many of your blogs incredibly useful.

    • Heather Galindo says:

      Hi Vicki,
      I’m so glad to hear this post and the book are useful! The Issue piece is always tricky and it often helps to do that last, so it doesn’t feel too constraining or broad. By the time you get through the Problem, So What, Solution, Benefits, the Issue often becomes clearer. You want it to be relatable and intriguing to people, but specific enough that it is already sparking questions in their mind. In conversation, I’m much more likely to use one of the other bins as entry points rather than something as broad as the Issue. And, of course, it might change depending on the specific audience. Good luck!


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