Meaghan Bond ’16 has one eye on newborns in sub-Saharan Africa and the other on students and graduate researchers in Rice University’s global health technology (GLHT) labs and programs. As a senior scientist in the Rebecca Richards-Kortum lab as well as an instructor in Rice’s GLHT minor, Bond’s dual vision encompasses the development of technologies to help newborns thrive in challenging conditions and mentoring the next generation of bioengineers and researchers.
At the heart of both perspectives is clear communication with detailed documentation, lessons she learned early in her own graduate years at Rice.
“As a first-year graduate student, I realized how much time I spent communicating about what I was working on,” said Bond, who earned a Ph.D. in bioengineering at Rice. “I was immediately invited to meetings with my PI (primary investigator) and with the lab team. Getting to know Dr. Richards-Kortum and how she communicated helped me shape my own updates and requests so that our styles aligned.
“Plus, I had changed fields after my undergraduate degree and needed a lot of help. I learned to say, ‘Here is what I tried, how I tried it, what I expected to happen, and what did happen. Now, how can you help me make sense of the experiment?’ The ability to communicate all that clearly and efficiently was essential for me to get the help I needed to grow in the field and move my research forward.”
Bond discovered an affinity for the visual side of her research data, which helped her better understand her own results and share her progress with various audiences. She said if she just reviews the data feed coming off a machine, she might miss important trends.
“With just a stream of numbers from a machine, it’s hard to see the larger patterns. But when I graph it in the right way, the patterns become clear. Then I can understand what is going on in my research and plan the most appropriate next steps,” said Bond.
In Bond’s second year of her Ph.D. studies, Tracy Volz offered to coach her on communication skills. Volz, director of the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program, included mentoring undergraduates as part of Bond’s coaching exercises. Mentoring Rice undergrads through their presentations and documentation forced Bond to analyze her own communication skills and improve upon them.
“Part of my Ph.D. program was working as a teaching assistant (TA) in BIOE courses, and TAs hear a lot of student presentations,” she said. “When the students were able to tell a good story, their presentation was much more interesting for everyone. I enjoyed being part of that process to help them shape their stories and to help them clearly show the awesome work they were doing.”
Her Ph.D. research led to a postdoctoral research fellowship with the Rice360 NEST project, where she continued developing low cost, reliable technologies to support babies with jaundice in sub-Saharan Africa. She was then promoted to senior scientist on the Rice360 team and invited to teach GLHT courses, further utilizing her growing skill at communicating complex topics.
Bond said, “Communicating about complex topics begins with understanding the audience and what background information they need. If I am talking with scientists in my sub group, they already familiar with the background. I can dive right into specific details about the research so we can all brainstorm and move the work forward.
“If I am talking with our clinician partners, they are less interested in the nuance of the signal I’m getting from the amber LED. They want to know how the final product works and how soon they can have it in their clinic. On the other hand, our manufacturing partners are familiar with the data and how to create the device, but not familiar with how it is actually used in the clinic. To them I might clarify, ‘We need this diagnostic to be designed in such a way because it is used on babies at their bedside, not in a laboratory.’”
Potential donors also need a specific message - less engineering details and more nuanced scientific summaries of the current status and why the team is pursuing this particular course. Donors also want to know how what the team is doing will change things for the better for this particular set of patients.
The second aspect of communicating research is to determine why the audience needs the information. Bond said, “Once I’ve framed the background for a specific audience, I have to look to the end goal of this communication. What will these groups do with the information I am providing?
“Our manufacturing partners will take my data back to the factory to make a more accurate device. A donor is going to decide whether or not they want to give money to this research. The customers want to know when they can get the device in their clinic and start using it. Knowing the end goal helps me make sure I’ve included the right kinds and right depth of information.”
From introduction to wrap up, a presentation or paper must also use relatable words and phrases for each particular audience. In a professional article, she refers to the patients benefiting from her research as neonates. With new GLHT students and a more public audience, she tends to use the word babies.
“There are other ways to customize our vocabulary for a particular audience. For example, a nonscientist can understand us when we say, ‘Blood that is dark red absorbs more green light,’ where a scientist wants the specifics: optical density is 4.5 at 532 nanometers,” she explained.
These days, Bond shares her explanation methods with two different populations in the George R. Brown School of Engineering at Rice: undergraduates in the GLHT minor, and graduate and postbaccalaureate researchers in the Richards-Kortum lab and Rice360. Although she is not directly responsible for the Rice360 research fellows, she feels part of the collective responsibility for their group’s success.
“So when one of our team members presents their findings, I might reach out to them afterwards and suggest a tweak to the colors they used in their slides or perhaps a different type of graph or adding certain labels to better communicate their message,” she said.
“As a senior scientist, one of my duties to mentor the up-and-coming researchers is to teach them scientific norms. They may not realize that one type of graph really needs error bars to help readers interpret the data, or that a Bland Altman plot is more appropriate for this experiment.”
She always reminds researchers preparing to share their results beyond the lab that audiences respond well to storytelling. “One of the most needed improvements to a detailed scientific presentation is to add a ‘Therefore’ statement: after explaining all the details of your fancy new sensor, connect it back to your motivation. ‘Therefore, we are now able to reliably detect and help infants struggling to breathe and will contribute to saving newborn lives.’”
As for her undergraduate students, Bond works hard to help them understand the importance of detailed documentation in the mid-level design course she teaches, GLHT 360. In this course, students are given real world, global health care problems to solve. The students have to work within the constraints of the problem’s setting, suggest a solution, design it, prototype it, and test it. When those students are asked to supply data as part of their project, it isn’t because Bond wants more work to grade.
She said, “The hardest part of the GHLT 360 course is to convey how much I really need to see their data in order to help them. They often give me very short sentences in the beginning of the semester, such as, ‘It didn’t work.’ What didn’t work? How did you run the test, what were your controls, what did you expect to happen? If all the student tells me is that their attempt failed, I can’t help them.
“In real world status update meetings, team members and other stakeholders are going to want to know details. As a mentor, I try to accustom them to identifying and documenting those details. If the student describes exactly how they set up a ‘failed’ test, I can sometimes identify that, for example, running the tests in a different order would eliminate the bias in their results. Or, maybe their data is telling them something useful, but they need some help learning to interpret it.”
Students in GLHT also have to learn how to plan for the future work. Successful outcomes are not the result of randomly going into the lab and working longer. Bond instructs them to first, plan - and document - why and where a new sensor or control is most likely to improve results and how that gain can be measured. With this kind of detailed communication in advance, she can advise the students whether or not that is likely to help.
“I am teaching Rice undergraduate students how to ask for help in the same way I needed to ask for help as a new graduate student,” said Bond.
This article was originally published for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program.