Tag Archives: book review

Book Review: If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?

From Goodreads.com

When I was getting ready for school in the morning as a tween-going-on-teen, I’d often have the TV on in the background, playing reruns of whatever television shows adults enjoyed in those days. So I’ve never actually seen a full episode of M*A*S*H, and really only know it by the sound of the helicopter blades in the opening segment, which was often playing as I walked out the door. But I’m definitely familiar with the actor who played Hawkeye in this show, Alan Alda. After Hawkeye’s tour was over, Alda hosted Scientific American Frontiers for 12 of its 15 seasons, and that show was most certainly not just background to my middle school mornings. For me, Scientific American Frontiers was a sit-down-stop-everything-else-and-only-watch-TV kind of show. Naturally, I decided I had to read Alda’s latest memoir, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, which encompasses his experience with scientific communication in an amusing and relatable way. As Alda says in the introduction, “Developing empathy and learning to recognize what the other person is thinking are both essential to good communication, and are what this book is about.”

            Storytelling is an important aspect of science. When we’re giving a talk, we have to convince the people listening that the research is worth their time and attention. Alda argues that communicating isn’t just telling. It is simultaneously observing and determining whether the audience follows, and whether what you’re saying resonates with them. In many ways, it’s akin to a performance, which is perhaps why an actor with a prolific track record like Alda is so successful at it. Using small studies and anecdotes as evidence, Alda suggests in this book that things like improvisation or audience-synchronization exercises can improve presentation skills.

            His principle extends to written audiences as well. A writer cannot observe and react to a reader’s thoughts, confusions, or frustrations, but they can learn to think about a reader’s state of mind and anticipate the reader’s expectations. In essence, a writer can learn to be familiar with the experience level of their target reader and what questions they might ask if they were in the room, and adjust the narrative or delivery of the story accordingly.

            If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? is a quick read, but that doesn’t hinder its capacity to home in on the important points above. This is not a how-to book; just reading it will not inherently improve your ability to communicate or your grant writing. But it may give you an idea of how to practice getting into your audience’s head and engaging with them in an easy and effective manner. Every audience will be different, and it is our responsibility – as researchers, as authors, as presenters – to be able communicate the intricate concepts of our research in a way that is readily comprehended by both scientists and non-scientists alike.

“The Prize” by Geoffrey M. Cooper, PhD is a thriller for the dramatic scientist in all of us

I was excited to learn a few months ago that my former PI from BU, Dr. Geoffrey Cooper, was publishing a fictional novel about the competitive world of scientific discovery and competition. I’m sharing a short review for you guys to hopefully inspire you to pick up a copy of your own to enjoy this entertaining and relatable thriller!

A fictional novel that tells the story of two professors racing to discover the first successful Alzheimer’s drug, written by Geoffrey Cooper PhD., a professor of Biology at BU. The story follows a chronological timeline to detail how the insatiable need to achieve a novel discovery can drive scientists to perform inconceivable acts. Pam Weller acts as the protagonist, a young assistant professor studying Alzheimer’s, vying for tenure at the fictional Boston-based research institute, the Langmere. Opposing Pam is Eric Prescott, a well-established and older professor at the Institute for Advanced Neuroscience in Cambridge, also a fictional and supposedly more established institute, compared to the Langmere. Whereas Eric is credited with the establishment of an Alzheimer’s mouse, Pam is building her budding career on a novel cell culture model of Alzheimer’s in which primary mouse brain cells grow plaques and die in vitro. Pam’s lab’s efforts are directed towards screening tens of thousands of compounds in her cell culture model in hopes of identifying a drug that can stop or reverse the formation of plaques to rescue the cells—a much speedier technique, compared to the screening of compounds in Alzheimer’s mice. With Pam’s tenure review coming up quickly, the pressure is on for her to make a truly groundbreaking discovery. When Pam’s postdoc Holly happens to identify the right compound, she greedily decides to keep the data to herself in hopes of advancing her own career. In an exciting and dreadful twist, Holly uses her discovery to team up with Eric to steal the drug, destroy Pam’s credibility, and walk away with all the glory and a Nobel Prize to boot.

This book is a true thriller as Pam works to uncover the truth and gain credit where it is truly due. The Prize is an easy-to-read page-turner. It’s an exciting and relatable story that is sure to entertain, especially for us, as we are deep in the trenches of scientific discovery!

That being said, hopefully none of us are resorting to tactics as evil and dramatic as Eric and Holly. It’s just a Nature paper and full tenure and the Nobel Prize… nothing worth murdering anyone over, right?

The Prize is available for purchase on Amazon.com