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“Gregory, remember thy ‘washing blow!”

That’s my cue to steal an apple and power-walk away, before the apple seller catches me by the shoulder and we enthusiastically join the brawl that has just erupted in the marketplace of “fair Verona.” A few scenes later, I’m peaceably circling my dance partner at the masked ball. Stagefighting, dancing and mastering Elizabethan English are some of the many perks that I enjoy as an ensemble member in this year’s “Shakespeare in the Arb” production of “Romeo and Juliet,” not to mention building up my stores of Vitamin D, since throughout May we’ve spent about nine hours a week practicing in the glades of the Arboretum. While I’ve been relishing all these parts of the Shakespeare in the Arb experience, I’ve also come to appreciate one part that I didn’t expect: practicing good scientific communication.

A recent dress rehearsal for this year’s Shakespeare in the Arb.

It’s my third summer in Ann Arbor as a grad student. While my former classmates are now transitioning into their roles as new M4s, taking on more clinical responsibilities but also exploring career interests through elective rotations, I’m finishing up the first year of my PhD in a basic-science-focused breast cancer lab. I’ve met a lot of new friends and colleagues over the past year, and of course in the process have been asked the age-old question: So, what do you do? When explaining my work in the lab, my answers range from “investigating the role of a highly-expressed small GTPase involved in actin cytoskeleton regulation” to “there’s this protein that we think might cause aggressive breast cancers to spread.”

My attempt at finding a swashbuckling look for my Shakespeare in the Arb debut… before our costume director stepped in.

Funnily enough, I’ve found there’s some similarity between explaining cancer biology experiments in layman’s terms and translating “Shakespeare-speech” into a performance that modern day audiences can understand. It’s not enough to rattle off phrases like “whose misadventured piteous overthrows” and “the serial dilution of the Src inhibitor”– my tone of voice, my body language, and the rest of the context I give should help both my audiences grasp my meaning. I find that when sharing something I’ve learned in the lab, stripping what I want to say down to its most basic components and building from there based on my audience’s response is an effective way to get my point across.

As our ensemble prepares for the upcoming performances in June, I’ll continue honing my communication skills in the hope that what I learn in the Arb can be put into practice in my everyday interactions, not only as I currently explain my research, but also in my discussions with future patients. After all, Shakespeare once wrote: “[Find] tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” And I intend to find as much as I can.

Hannah is a third-year MD/PhD student at Michigan, studying Cancer Biology. When she's not completing labwork while humming Broadway tunes, you can find her curled up with a good book or basking in the natural beauty of the Arboretum.