The Role of Scientific Literacy in the Discourse Community of Developmental Neurobiologists
by Juliana Madzia
Developmental neurobiology is a field of neuroscience research that focuses on describing the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which complex nervous systems emerge during embryonic development and throughout life. Dramatic discoveries in these areas have been made in recent decades, paving the way for developmental neurobiology to move from being a small sub-field of research to being its own independent specialty. Although a substantial amount of research has been done on the discourse community of scientists in general, little to no research has been published on discourse communities within neuroscience and its related fields. The research presented here establishes the existence of a discourse community within the realm of developmental neurobiology. It then furthers this notion by exploring the processes of becoming enculturated and gaining authority within this community and evaluating the role that language and rhetoric play in such processes.
To acquire the data for this research, I read numerous ethnographies of other discourse communities to determine where there might be a need for more research and to determine which concepts of a discourse community might be interesting to study. The existing literature on scientific discourse communities is somewhat limited, but I found several case studies that evaluated the use of rhetoric and the process of enculturation into the world of science. Since no published works could be found that explored developmental neurobiologists as a discourse community, all information presented here is the result of primary research. As an undergraduate researcher in a developmental neurobiology laboratory at a local research hospital, I have had the opportunity to observe the community, its culture, and its methods of communication throughout my year of employment in the lab. Additionally, I interviewed the principal investigator of my lab, Dr. Kenny Campbell, to obtain the perspective of someone who, after twenty years of work in developmental neurobiology, would be considered an expert in the field.
In an article published in Writing about Writing: A College Reader, linguistics professor John Swales discusses the concept of discourse communities and their importance in the academic and social worlds. Since my research seems to be the first of its kind to present developmental neurobiologists as a discourse community, it was important to establish that this community met John Swales’ six defining characteristics of a discourse community before proceeding to more deeply examine the processes that shape this community. A discourse community is said to exist if the community in question:
- Has a broadly agreed set of common public goals.
- Has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members.
- Uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback.
- Utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims.
- In addition to owning genres, has acquired some specific lexis.
- Has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise (Swales 221-222).
The following overview of developmental neuroscience reflects its adherence to Swales’ definition. While developmental neurobiologists have a vast array of specific research interests, they share the objective of advancing the scientific community’s knowledge of developmental neuroscience as a field. Researchers within this community communicate with other researchers on a global scale by attending conferences such as the Biennial Meeting of the International Society for Developmental Neuroscience and by reading and contributing to publications such as the International Journal of Developmental Neuroscience. Developmental neurobiology publications could be described as their own genre by virtue of the fact that such publications are used by researchers to gain background information that points them in the direction of where their future research should go. These publications have a very specific form and function of which all members of the discourse community are aware. For example, experienced developmental neurobiologists studying specific genes are aware of which research groups have published the newest or most interesting findings on those genes, and know to search through the abstracts of papers published by those groups to find the information that will most helpful in conducting their own experiments. On a smaller scale, communication takes place between members of individual institutions through meetings and presentations where researchers may present their findings to their peers and facilitate discussions on future objectives. These mechanisms of participation allow developmental neurobiologists to provide information and feedback to one another.
One of the strongest pieces of evidence supporting the characterization of developmental neurobiology researchers as a discourse community is the highly specialized lexis that must be acquired in order to be a fully integrated member . It is not uncommon to hear two researchers in my lab carrying on a conversation about the “distinct temporal requirements for homeobox genes” and the “establishment of a pallo-subpallial boundary” so fluidly that it seems as if they have been using such vocabulary since the day they were born. Finally, there are varying levels of expertise within the community. Members range from graduate students, who have very recently surpassed the threshold level of discoursal expertise that Swales uses to define a discourse community, to seasoned PhDs who have been in the field since its emergence. The role of language and writing in scientific discourse cannot be overstated, especially in the way that it affects students’ enculturation into the discourse community and their future success in the field.
The role of written discourse in the scientific community has been extensively studied by Marilyn Florence and Larry Yore. According to a 2004 multiple case study published by these individuals, “Reading and writing are inextricably linked to the very nature and fabric of Science. Individuals who aspire to become experts in science must have the ability to transform their findings into both oral and written form” (638). They declare that enculturation of novice scientists into elite expert communities is a long process that begins early in their undergraduate careers and continues even past the start of their research careers. In this article, scientific literacy is defined as ‘‘the cognitive abilities and emotional dispositions to construct science understandings, the big ideas of science, and the communications to inform people about these big ideas and to persuade them to take informed actions” (Florence and Yore 638).
The interview I conducted with Dr. Campbell illustrates the very same point. Speaking about young students beginning to work in the developmental neurobiology lab for the first time, he says:
There, I think the challenges are greater because the concept is even further away from a comfortable place for them. So as an undergrad coming in you have a vague understanding but not the same level as if you were a PhD trained molecular biologist. So what you have to grasp as an undergraduate is the overall picture. But I would argue that that’s the perfect time to be able to do it because you’re coming in at a point where most of your exposure is overview exposure. You have exposure to all aspects of that big picture. Once you have a concept of the anatomy, you could back around and learn what controls those processes. So you can come back and learn at each of those levels. You can learn from others in the lab or be involved in experiments. A good undergraduate would be able to progress.
This was exactly the experience that I had when I began working in the lab as a freshman undergraduate student. I was taking first-year biology at the time, which provided an introduction to the complex biological concepts of the developmental neurobiology laboratory. As my research progressed, I learned in greater depth about each of the topics specifically related to my own research and eventually integrated that information into an understanding of the broader research project.
Although the learning curve in the discipline of developmental neurobiology is significant, it is rarely so large that it drives students away from the field entirely. Susan Birch- Bécaas, a researcher of rhetoric and scientific discourse, has shown in her work that the best way to ensure that students become successfully enculturated into scientific discourse communities is through “legitimate peripheral participation,” which allows a young student to gain access into the community through association with an expert mentor (Birch-Bécaas 3). As an undergraduate student beginning to work in a developmental neurobiology lab, I was paired with a post-doctoral fellow who allowed me to observe his work until I felt comfortable enough to work independently. According to Florence and Yore, expert-novice relationships often begin with the mentor introducing the young student to the basic techniques of the research environment and the simpler scientific concepts behind the work being done. Over time, the student’s role shifts from one based more on listening, observing, and asking questions to one in which the student develops his own hypotheses and critically analyzes his own methods and data. Further along, mentor-mentee relationships often include co-authoring a paper and attending academic conferences together. According to Florence and Yore, mentors showcase the language norms and practices of the discourse community and share knowledge of the community with their students (650). Though the novice does have a position within the discourse community, he or she does not yet play a fully integrated role. Over time, novices become more familiar with the “ways of being” and the “ways of knowing” of their academic discourse community (Florence and Yore 644).
Dr. Kenneth Campbell, the principal investigator of my lab who was mentioned earlier, suggests that eventually, the students will have gained enough knowledge and familiarity with their discourse community to move on to what is arguably the biggest step in legitimizing oneself as a scientist: publication. Most students do not immediately have the skills necessary to successfully write in the style of the academic sciences. According to Birch-Bécaas, these students often “do not have the reader awareness they need,” and their writing tends to reflect “greater familiarity with the technical aspects of work than with the rhetorical skills needed to present that work effectively to other scientists” (6). This is where the importance of a strong expert-novice relationship again comes into play, as it is necessary for the mentor to strike an appropriate balance between guidance and inhibiting over-correction. Students that are given the opportunity to learn to write in this way are best equipped to become regular contributors with full integration into their scientific discourse community (Birch-Bécaas 7).
Although it seems to be the exception rather than the norm, there are times when young scientists experience conflicts during their process of enculturation that ultimately drive them away from the field entirely. This can occur if the mentor does not have adequate skills or awareness to properly convey the norms and expectations of the discourse community to the student or if the mentor himself does not possess satisfactory writing skills (Birch-Bécaas 8). From Dr. Campbell’s perspective, the majority of these failed cases can be attributed to what he sees as a lack of passion. “They’re not very driven to go deeper. They come in and they actually realize that it’s a climb. Those students find themselves less passionate about it and don’t necessarily feel it’s worth the effort to go forward,” Campbell asserts.
Additionally, even if a student makes it all the way through the initial process of integration into the academic or scientific discourse community, he or she is still not guaranteed success. College professor and genre theorist Ann Johns states in “Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice: Membership, Conflict, and Diversity” that it is not uncommon for students to go through all of their training, only to find out later that there are no faculty positions available or that their approach to research will not lead to advancement in their field (507). This issue has been brought to light in the media recently, as both the lack of funding from the National Institutes of Health toward biomedical research and the unavailability of principal investigator positions have gained more publicity as major factors driving graduates away from science (Andrews et al. 1). Often, young scientists are forced to complete several consecutive post-doctoral fellowships for which they are highly over-qualified before they reach full-fledged faculty status. During this time, post-doctoral fellows already have all of the knowledge necessary for integration into the discourse community, but they are barred from gaining full authority because their research topics and methods are still essentially at the mercy of their principal investigator. Therefore, they are stuck in a state of partial assimilation with little authority due not to a lack of ability but to the inhibiting qualities of the structure of the field (Andrews et al. 4).
A challenge that has not yet been thoroughly explored is the dissemination and presentation of research findings to the larger scientific community outside the realm of developmental neurobiology. This is arguably even more difficult than the original adoption of the vocabulary and lexis required for integration into the discourse community of developmental neuroscience. According to Dr. Campbell, learning the vocabulary and gaining access to the field are not outside the capability of an average intellect person. He says:
Within the developmental neurobiology field it’s very true that I can be pretty specific about things and leave out a lot of details and people are right there with me… But actually, there’s really little value in only communicating to that group… It’s much more meaningful when you’re able to have a broader impact. And that’s when your jargon and your terminologies have to be put into context or even abolished to find a way to disseminate on a larger level.
The most valuable goal that a scientist can attempt to achieve is to talk to and influence every segment of the scientific community. It is when a developmental neurobiologist can disseminate his or her research to a broader sphere and make non-specialists realize that the research is important and exciting that he or she can make the greatest impact on society, says Dr. Campbell. Although extremely specialized journals that form the basis of communication within this discourse community, like the International Journal of Developmental Neuroscience, have their uses and their benefits, it is the ability to publish in more general journals that will be read by neurophysiologists, biochemists, and medical researchers alike that truly makes a developmental neurobiologist successful not just in the developmental neurobiology discourse community, but in the discourse community of all scientific research (Campbell).
The command of proper language in the sciences, and specifically in developmental neurobiology, is highly necessary and is interwoven into the processes of grant funding, understanding experiments and data, presenting results, and persuading other scientists and laypeople of the validity and importance of those results (Yore et al. 113). This pathway of acquisition is often viewed as a steady upward slope; one would expect scientists to expand their range of specialized vocabulary continuously as they move up in their fields and gain expertise. Indeed, current literature on the topic states that “experts are not allowed to be comfortable with their current expertise; as a result, they constantly push the boundaries of their knowledge and competence” (Florence and Yore 640).
I would argue that for successful developmental neurobiologists this language trajectory includes a second pathway that develops simultaneously with language acquisition. Both my own experiences and my interview with Dr. Campbell point to the idea that once new developmental neurobiologists have successfully become enculturated into the discourse community and have obtained the necessary lexis and rhetorical skills, unless they are able to take the information that they have obtained at a high level of specialization and find a way to bring it back down and disseminate it to the broader scientific community and the general population in a meaningful way, they will not reach the maximum level of success outside of their own discourse community of developmental neurobiologists. I have found this to be true even in my own short time working in the field. It is simple enough to memorize impressive-sounding jargon about molecular genetics and laboratory techniques describing my research, but this kind of talk is generally met with blank stares from friends and family members that are unfamiliar with the topic. It requires the ability to connect these ideas to a broader subject – to emphasize that what we discover at the molecular level is directly related to childhood cognitive development and mental illness – before people outside the field can appreciate the importance of the research being done.
After the original establishment of developmental neurobiologists as their own discourse community within the broader communities of neuroscience and scientific research as a whole, it becomes clear that proper command of language and scientific rhetoric are absolutely vital to students’ enculturation into the discourse community and their future success as published researchers. Having a capable, expert mentor and having the opportunity to co-author a paper with this mentor are key elements in this integration process. Lack of these and other factors have been shown in some cases to lead students to be driven away from the field of developmental neurobiology or scientific research entirely. Preliminary research indicates that an even greater challenge than attaining the specialized lexis of the developmental neurobiology discourse community is sharing the research done at such a high level of specialization with the greater scientific community in a way that demonstrates its importance in a significant way. Developmental neurobiologists that are able to overcome this challenge may experience greater career success than those that cannot. According to Dr. Campbell, though, the greatest indicator of successful integration and enculturation into the developmental neurobiology discourse community is passion. He concluded our interview with the following words of wisdom from his years of experience in developmental neurobiology: “You’ve got to care about what it is you’re doing, because the reality is, it’s really hard… So unless you’re incredibly passionate about it, unless you’re driven by trying to get answers to things we don’t know, you won’t succeed in this field… If you’re passionate you’ll say, ‘Okay, I’m going to learn that stuff.’ ”
Although the processes of becoming assimilated and gaining authority in the discourse community of developmental neurobiology researchers are often difficult and extensive, the benefits that can be reaped from joining this discourse community are great. Developmental neurobiologists have an important and unique niche in providing new knowledge and discoveries to the scientific community and to the world at large, leading to critical progress on disease understanding and prevention. None of this could be achieved without the cooperation, cohesiveness, and communication that exist within this discourse community.
Andrews, Nancy, et al. “A Broken Pipeline? Flat Funding of the NIH Puts a Generation of Science at Risk.” United for Medical Research (2008): 1-20. Web.
Birch-Bécaas, Susan. “The Initiation of French PhD Students into the International Research Discourse Community.” ASp 53-54 (2011): 1-10. Web.
Campbell, Kenneth. Personal interview. 7 November 2014.
Florence, Marilyn K., and Larry D. Yore. “Learning to Write like a Scientist: Coauthoring as an Enculturation Task.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 41.6 (2004): 637-68. Web.
Johns, Ann. “Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice: Membership, Conflict, and Diversity.” Writing about Writing: A College Reader. 1st ed. Ed. Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 499-518. Print.
Swales, John. “The Concept of a Discourse Community.” Writing about Writing: A College Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014. 217-228. Print.
Yore, Larry D., Marilyn K. Florence, Terry W. Pearson, and Andrew J. Weaver. “Written Discourse in Scientific Communities: A Conversation with Two Scientists about Their Views of Science, Use of Language, Role of Writing in Doing Science, and Compatibility between Their Epistemic Views and Language.” International Journal of Science Education 28.2-3 (2006): 109-141. Web.
Juliana Madzia is a third-year student studying Neurobiology at the University of Cincinnati. She is passionate about global health and aspires to work at the intersection of social justice and medicine as a maternal health physician. Juliana runs cross country for the University of Cincinnati’s varsity team and in her spare time she enjoys hiking, reading, and writing. She originally wrote this piece for an honors intermediate composition class, where she truly enjoyed the opportunity to combine her love of writing with her passion for science.
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