Houston voices

How to engage potential clients or investors for your science-based startup or technology

Words are hard. Here's how to pick the best ones to use to better communicate your science-based startup's mission. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

So you're a researcher. Communicating science to a non-scientific audience scares the chemistry out of you.

You've spent your entire career studying fungiform papillae density. The mere thought of fungiform papillae density gives you a rush that even love cannot provide. You know everything about fungiform papillae density. One day you have an interview with a reporter. You're preparing to present at a conference for shareholders. You're writing a grant application. Or you're just at the family cookout and your crazy Uncle Joe with the glass eye wants to know what you do for work.

It's time.

This is the moment where you have to reach deep within yourself to scrape every bit of communications skill in your body. It's time to do what has challenged even the most brilliant scientific minds for ages: explain your work simply.

Yes, there is difficulty in simplicity. The irony is as rich as it is tragic.

Thankfully, there is hope. There are plenty of things you can do to ensure your message is communicated effectively to your non-scientific audience.

Communicating science with better word choices

The old '80s band Missing Persons once sang, "What are words for, when no one listens anymore?"

If what you're saying is not engaging, direct, or simple to understand, your listener will stop listening. The same thing is true for writing.

The words you use matter. They determine whether or not your audience will lock on to what you're trying to convey. Use language that is clear and simple and registers your message.

Personal pronouns like I, you, we help connect readers with the writer and his or her message. Such pronouns present your writing as more of a conversation. People tend to invest more in a conversation than a research paper. Conversations are natural and everyone understands them because everyone is experienced with them. The same cannot be said for research papers about, say, the role of lactic acid production by probiotic Lactobacillus species.

Let's look at the pronouns in action. In the first sentence, you'll see an unnecessarily long, bombastic, impersonal message. In the second, you'll find a more personable, inviting message:

Investigators with supplemental queries or interest in funding opportunities should contact the program.

Contact us if you are interested in funding opportunities.

Words are choice

Your word choices are vital in helping your readers digest your material. Choosing the appropriate words in communicating science stories can not only capture your readers' attention, but keep it.

Use positive words over negative ones. Negative words like don't or not can confuse readers.

Consider this sentence: "The machine doesn't run if you don't follow these instructions exactly as they are written."

It's confusing, isn't it?

Let's rework it with positive words: "The machine will run better if you follow these instructions exactly."

Now there's a sentence that inspires hope.

Inclusive language also helps everyone feel engaged. Stay away from male only pronouns like he and his. Unless you're writing a research paper specifically about men, it's always better to use inclusive language so that non-male readers can follow along and become invested in what you're communicating.

Simple sentences

Using direct, efficiently constructed sentences well get your point across most effectively. According to the search engine optimization platform Yoast, you should keep your sentences under 20 words. Keeping it short with no more than two punctuation points in the body of the sentence will help the reader understand your message. It lets them breathe. It's not overwhelming when it's short.

Make sure to keep your sentences simple, too. Make sure you only cover one idea in every sentence. Keep each paragraph centered on one theme only. Introducing more than one idea or theme will dilute the focus a reader has, because he or she has to divide their attention to give to more things.

Cut the fat. You don't need intensifiers like very, really, actually, or carefully in communicating science stories. They don't really have a purpose. If something is hot and you want to emphasize that point, don't describe it as "really hot." Instead, say that it's "dangerously hot." Say that people have been hospitalized from touching this hot thing. Now you're really saying something.

Verbs with a vengence

Summon the absolute power of verbs.

"Frankie broke the guitar" is a much more vivid portrayal of what happened than "The guitar was broken by Frankie."

Passive voice is often used in a not-so-creative way to hide wrongdoing.

"The money was taken."

Who took the money? The reader might conclude that the writer is hiding something.

"The store manager took the money."

Now you're telling us something we can use. Arrest the store manager.

What you just witnessed is the difference between passive voice (the former) and the active voice (the latter).

It's undeniable that the choices you make with your words and sentences can either connect or kill your audience's interest. They can make the process of communicating science easier or put the brakes on.

Making your technical paper a casual conversation without compromising the integrity of your research helps the lay audience follow along. Using active voice over passive voice helps your readers maintain interest because you're showing a sense of action where someone is doing something. Using universal pronouns expands your reach because everyone can feel they can invest in your writing. Hope is not lost. You can communicate even the most arcane material to the least scientific audiences.

"It is easy for us to forget the power of words. We use them the way an engineer uses a slide rule or a surgeon uses a scalpel." – Jonathan Capehart, Pulitzer Prize winner, The Washington Post.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Breakthrough research on metastatic breast cancer, a new way to turn toxic pollutants into valuable chemicals, and an evolved brain tumor chip are three cancer-fighting treatments coming out of Houston. Getty Inages

Cancer remains to be one of the medical research community's huge focuses and challenges, and scientists in Houston are continuing to innovate new treatments and technologies to make an impact on cancer and its ripple effect.

Three research projects coming out of Houston institutions are providing solutions in the fight against cancer — from ways to monitor treatment to eliminating cancer-causing chemicals in the first place.

Baylor College of Medicine's breakthrough in breast cancer

Photo via bcm.edu

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Harvard Medical School have unveiled a mechanism explains how "endocrine-resistant breast cancer acquires metastatic behavior," according to a news release from BCM. This research can be game changing for introducing new therapeutic strategies.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and shows that hyperactive FOXA1 signaling — previously reported in endocrine-resistant metastatic breast cancer — can trigger genome-wide reprogramming that enhances resistance to treatment.

"Working with breast cancer cell lines in the laboratory, we discovered that FOXA1 reprograms endocrine therapy-resistant breast cancer cells by turning on certain genes that were turned off before and turning off other genes," says Dr. Xiaoyong Fu, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and part of the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor, in the release.

"The new gene expression program mimics an early embryonic developmental program that endow cancer cells with new capabilities, such as being able to migrate to other tissues and invade them aggressively, hallmarks of metastatic behavior."

Patients whose cancer is considered metastatic — even ones that initially responded to treatment — tend to relapse and die due to the cancer's resistance to treatment. This research will allow for new conversations around therapeutic treatment that could work to eliminate metastatic cancer.

University of Houston's evolved brain cancer chip

Photo via uh.edu

A biomedical research team at the University of Houston has made improvements on its microfluidic brain cancer chip. The Akay Lab's new chip "allows multiple-simultaneous drug administration, and a massive parallel testing of drug response for patients with glioblastoma," according to a UH news release. GBM is the most common malignant brain tumor and makes up half of all cases. Patients with GBM have a five-year survival rate of only 5.6 percent.

"The new chip generates tumor spheroids, or clusters, and provides large-scale assessments on the response of these GBM tumor cells to various concentrations and combinations of drugs. This platform could optimize the use of rare tumor samples derived from GBM patients to provide valuable insight on the tumor growth and responses to drug therapies," says Metin Akay, John S. Dunn Endowed Chair Professor of Biomedical Engineering and department chair, in the release.

Akay's team published a paper in the inaugural issue of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society's Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology. The report explains how the technology is able to quickly assess how well a cancer drug is improving its patients' health.

"When we can tell the doctor that the patient needs a combination of drugs and the exact proportion of each, this is precision medicine," Akay explains in the release.

Rice University's pollution transformation technology

Photo via rice.edu

Rice University engineers have developed a way to get rid of cancer-causing pollutants in water and transform them into valuable chemicals. A team lead by Michael Wong and Thomas Senftle has created this new catalyst that turns nitrate into ammonia. The study was published in the journal ACS Catalysis.

"Agricultural fertilizer runoff is contaminating ground and surface water, which causes ecological effects such as algae blooms as well as significant adverse effects for humans, including cancer, hypertension and developmental issues in babies," says Wong, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Rice's Brown School of Engineering, in a news release. "I've been very curious about nitrogen chemistry, especially if I can design materials that clean water of nitrogen compounds like nitrites and nitrates."

The ability to transform these chemicals into ammonia is crucial because ammonia-based fertilizers are used for global food supplies and the traditional method of creating ammonia is energy intensive. Not only does this process eliminate that energy usage, but it's ridding the contaminated water of toxic chemicals.

"I'm excited about removing nitrite, forming ammonia and hydrazine, as well as the chemistry that we figured out about how all this happens," Wong says in the release. "The most important takeaway is that we learned how to clean water in a simpler way and created chemicals that are more valuable than the waste stream."