Framing: Beautiful Microbe, Beautiful Molecule

Before I started down the health science path I studied communications. In communications, there’s an idea called “framing.” Framing is a theory that’s often applied to the media and how it shapes public opinion about certain topics. The concept is that how you talk about a specific topic (ex. healthcare)—such as the tone you use and the details you include (or leave out)—can shape other people’s perceptions of the topic.

I’ve noticed that several of my science professors use framing as a teaching tactic. And, despite knowing exactly what they’re doing, I still fall for it.

I’m currently studying microbiology and organic chemistry. There’s a lot of new information to learn and for organic chemistry there are a few new thinking skills I’ve been practicing—such as being able to think about molecules in 3D. It’s an interesting challenge to train your brain to be able to rotate different molecular structures using only your imagination. I’m lucky enough to find microbiology and organic chemistry fascinating, but still it’s hard work. That’s where the framing comes in.

My organic chemistry professor introduces particularly complex or tricky molecules as “beautiful molecules.” “This is a beauuuutiful molecule,” he’ll say. He’ll also start a new chapter by saying “This is an important chapter. This is very cool…let me tell you why.” And, somewhere in that explanation of how awesome the challenging topic is, he’ll make a few comments about needing to practice the skills he’s about to show us. “But I will teach you how to…” he will conclude.

My microbiology professor does the same thing. I always know when he’s preparing to introduce a particularly complex metabolism, process, or cycle used by bacteria because he’ll pull up a picture of a microbe and say “This beautiful microbe…”

Those are current examples, but my general chemistry professor did the same thing. His word for hard concepts to learn was “interesting” rather than “beautiful.”

So what’s going on with this inappropriate use of descriptive words? Framing. Why? Because it works. As absurd as it sounds, it’s way easier to fight with a beautiful molecule than a molecule that’s “annoying” or “difficult” or “challenging” from the very start. I don’t think microbes are necessarily beautiful, but I approach them with much more interest and forgiveness when they are presented to me as “beautiful” rather than “ugly” or “evil” or “bad.” And, when trying to complete long chemical equations, it is a lot easier to complete the “interesting” problem than it is the “hard”, “tricky”, or “terrible” problem.

What’s my long-winded point? Before I dove into science I heard that it was “hard” and “confusing” and “dry” and “boring” and many other potentially negative adjectives. Sometimes I completely agree. But, most of the time, I do think it’s amazingly interesting. I think we’d do a lot of young people thinking about their future (and older people looking for something new) a service if we framed science as something wonderful. Sure, there is plenty about it that’s hard, and even monotonous, but most of it (all of it maybe) is not beyond most people’s reach. We’ve just conditioned our population to think science is either too complicated for them or not something they’d find interesting by describing it as scary, trying, and a thing that only geeks and brilliant people do. It’s worth a frame-shift around science. Why? What better way to find answers to medical questions, renewable energy questions, etc. than having more people researching and exploring those topics?

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