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  • Ashley Railey

Research as a Conversation

As researchers, we are part of a larger scientific community charged with the onus of bringing knowledge into the world. Especially as students, whereby learning to perform research takes precedence, it is easy to forget that research is about more than the first-author publications, lines on a CV, or time spent in the field. These items are important not for the clout it gives us when applying for our first jobs, but for what they signify, a contribution to the scientific discourse.

A year and a half into my training as a PhD student I had the chance to truly experience what it means to be part of the scientific community. Up until that point, my professors drilled into us the importance of not just doing research, but sharing that research. Sharing research by revising peer work, publishing our own work, attending seminars, and even, starting to give our own talks. Having been working on my first major research findings of my PhD career this past semester, early on I agreed to present my research to an interdisciplinary crowd at WSU. Six months out, the task seemed achievable. As the day got closer and closer, though, and my results seemed more and more inconclusive, and my coursework piled higher and higher, the prospect of presenting what had become my child, my life, my constant stress and pleasure, haunted my thoughts. How was I going to present in front of an auditorium on concepts I was just only starting to master? I had seen many a seminars by this point and they all made it look so easy. As if they were talking about how to boil water or draw a star. Not on the complexities of some rare strain of some highly complex infectious disease, or their derivation of consumption theory. So how could I talk about something that was constantly evolving every day in my mind and on paper?

My advisor reminded me that while I am still learning, I know my research better than anyone. I also shouldn't be afraid to say ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘Let me look into that further,’ though, because the dialogue and the constructive inquiry are part of the process. Essentially, yes, I can talk about household decision-making regarding foot and mouth disease vaccines in northern Tanzania better than most people. However, getting an outsider’s view, especially in this case, presenting an economic paper to a non-economic group, provided me with new perspectives and questions I had not previously thought. Not only during the Q and A session did the scientific process come to life, but during the presentation itself I saw myself engaging with the audience by reading facial expressions and inferring their confusion or interest. From the crowd alone the strengths and weaknesses of my presentation materialized. From the Q and A, I saw my research as part of the conversation.

What appears scary at first, putting your whole self out on the line, in the end should be seen as an opportunity to grow your research and make the contribution you signed up for when becoming a PhD. It is not enough for us to isolate ourselves in the field, then in the lab or behind a computer hoping people read our articles. We also need to actively propel our work into the world where it can be churned around, spit back up, soaked in, all the while becoming part of the conversation.

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