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A Bioinformatician's Guide to Making Small Talk

This one's for bioinformaticians everywhere who've ever tried to explain their day jobs to people in social settings and watched as their listeners' eyes glazed over.

In a recent Genome Biology article, Alicia Oshlack, a senior research officer at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research shares her creative 10-step plan to making sure that your audience understands the basics of your job without boring them silly.

Before launching into a monologue about your favorite sequence assembler and the difference between de novo and reference-based assembly, gauge whether your audience really wants to know what you do by providing general details about your field, Oshlack says. If their attention starts wandering mid-sentence or you see them eyeing the bar desperately, don't force the issue, start talking about something else — sports, politics, the weather, whatever.

Also, she says, try to give your listener an idea about just how big the human genome really is. Oshlack says she uses Tolstoy's War and Peace as an analogy. It has around three million letters in it, so the human genome would have as many letters as 1,000 copies of Tolstoy's book and a genetic disease would be "like having a typo in one of those copies," she writes.

Only after a few more steps, as well as checking in on whether your audience's interest is waning, can you dive into bioinformatics and why you are absolutely essential to genomics, she says. While you are at it, be sure to throw in some examples of thrilling discoveries that you've either been involved in or that you've read about, she says.

By following her plan, Oshlack says that you can ensure that at the end of a night out with friends or family party, at least a few people in the room won't be giving you a wide berth.