Erin E. Martin
Erin Martin is the web communication leader for the departments of Horticulture and Crop and Soil Science at Oregon State University, where she works closely with faculty, staff, and students to help them inform, connect, and engage with their audiences. Her research program seeks to find the best coffee on campus.
She lives in beautiful Corvallis, Oregon, and you can occasionally see her remembering that she has a Twitter account at @wrstknitterever.
Be a Dilettante
The word dilettante brings up dusty visions of the 19th century, such as the well-heeled 20-something white male, sitting in his music room, playing his spinet. There’s a slightly sneering connotation to the word, bringing to mind someone without the knowledge, without the commitment. In more modern terms, the wannabe.
As a kid, I tagged along with my mother, who worked at a research lab. The scientist life looked glamorous to me, so I decided that I was going to become a marine biologist. There were fewer science exposure opportunities for children back then, so I wasn’t prepared at all for the work involved in science. I said I wanted to be a scientist, but I spent most of my free time writing and inventing stories.
When I finally dropped Advanced Biology in 11th grade because it was “too hard”, I had no idea that this decision would turn out to be a defining moment in my career. I had chosen to become a dilettante, because I still cared about science. I still followed popular science journalism, I listened to others talk about scientific topics — I was drawn to science, fascinated by it, but completely terrified of it. The concepts, the rigor, the breadth excited me. I wanted to talk about it.
This reverence and awe has lead me into a career in web communications for science research. And the fear I suffer (because it is too hard) has made me good at it. I speak to researchers about their projects, what they are trying to find out, what they need to communicate to other researchers and the public, and I help them develop purposeful online communication devised to meet these goals. One day I may be helping a Ph.D. student describe why we should care about manmade noise and its effect on sea mammals. Another day could be spent putting up data sets and tying them into a bigger context. It’s fascinating and exciting to hear many of these researchers talk about their projects. I may ask good questions, but it’s obvious to me and to the researchers that I only understand most of these projects at a basic level.
When we become a dilettante, we understand what’s going on the surface, but deeper meaning eludes us. Less time is spent asking the obvious questions — because we understand that and can explain it at length — and more time trying to understand. I still may only have a middle schooler’s knowledge of how genetics works, but I understand how genetics is important to many aspects of science and research.
Dilettantes pay close attention, because there might be something we missed. We’ll show up at even the most tired lecture, because it’s always an opportunity to learn. Scientists, we’re excited to hear about your work, and you inspire us. Tell us more, tell us again. Dilettantes may be your layperson audience, but we’re the perfect people to help communicate your research to others.
What are you scared of, but drawn to? How are you becoming a dilettante?