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Nobel laureate Randy Schekman on the importance of scientists clearly communicating about their work

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I consider myself a professional nerd (my background is in chemistry and neuroscience) and have attended many academic talks during my life. I’ll be honest: I’ve spaced out during quite a few talks that were outside of my area of expertise.

Earlier this week, I attended a talk on campus by 2013 Nobel laureate and Stanford alumnus Randy Schekman, PhD. The subject of his talk – how cells expel a special kind of vesicle – was way out of my comfort zone. (I’m more neuroscientist than chemist.) But Schekman didn’t lose me as an audience member.

After Schekman finished speaking about his research, he was asked to comment about the role of teaching in his life. His answer, during which he explained that one of his responsibilities at UC Berkeley is to teach is an undergraduate seminar, explains my engagement during his talk.

“I’ve learned when you teach undergraduates – people who are smart but uninitiated – you have to make yourself understood,” Schekman said.

It is obviously this effort, this desire to succeed at communicating the complexities of what happens in his lab and his field to undergraduates and experts alike, that makes Schekman an accessible speaker.

And Schekman made clear that making yourself understood has benefits beyond connecting with your audience. As he told the audience, every now and then he teaches an outstanding student who challenges him, forcing him to think more deeply about subjects he thought he knew well.

Schekman spoke at the Medical Grand Rounds and was this year’s Rubenstein lecturer. Founded by friends of Edward Rubenstein, MD, the lectureship was created to honor Rubenstein’s commitment to the intersection of education with the clinical sciences.

Kimberlee D’Ardenne is a writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication and Public Affairs.

Previously: Hawkeye Pierce (i.e. Alan Alda) teaches scientists how to better communicate about their work, A call to fix the "crisis of communication" in science, Stanford’s Thomas Südhof wins 2013 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Challenging scientists to better communicate their ideas to the public
Photo by Joan M. Mas

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