First things first - I follow a column called "Experimental Error" written by Adam Ruben at Science Careers, and it's excellent. I highly recommend that you read it.
Second disclosure: I don't see myself as an insightful, brilliant, theorist who can explain biological phenomena after meditative thought. I don't know many who are.
I'm more of a Nespresso-fuelled nerd who amazes himself with his stupidity on a daily basis, but happens to be kind of practical and enjoys science partly because it feels like cooking (and vice versa).
His most recent post, "Why we need another Einstein", makes some very insightful and salient points on the greater public's perception of scientists. I believe it's absolutely clear that we who have the privilege to do science, have a duty to share some of it with all strata of the public. This is because scientific and societal progress are intertwined and interdependent - especially in today's day and age.
However, not all of us are as enthusiastic as Bill Nye, as talented at public engagement as Neil DeGrasse Tyson, or as brilliant as Stephen Hawking. And not all members of the public are equally interested in science - that, I'm thankful for!
So, when we finally get the chance to escape from the lab, awkwardly nursing a drink at the pub with friends or strangers - how do we answer the question, "So, what do you do?"
And, how do we explain this research project that consumes our working days (and nights, and weekends sometimes) with enough tact to avoid the intricacies of tetrad dissection or that insightful Molecular Cell paper you read this week?
I'll use a personal anecdote. One of my many hidden talents is the ability to talk science at people until they die of boredom. This is a very niche talent, and I'm sure it'll come in handy someday. However, it's not very useful for most social situations. How do I try to make people who don't usually discuss science partly understand what I do?
Science has been presented as an abstract profession in popular culture; this has created a detachment from the lay population, that can be dismissive at times. That's partly our own fault, too. I mean, when someone describes themselves as a brave firefighter, a talented baker, or a promising athlete - you usually know exactly what they do. In fact, you might think that you could probably do their job as well, and perhaps even do it well.
But - when it comes to the laudable career of scientific research, explaining why your Western blots are giving contradictory results is not a suitable topic to converse about. That's because conversations require both parties to relate to the topic in some way, and the exchange tends to break down otherwise (sounds a lot like some of our fascinating departmental seminars, which I usually attend for the free lunch).
I like to lead others in with a Fun Science Fact - that I would not have a day job if not for Øjvind Winge and the brilliant pioneers at the Carlsberg Laboratory in Copenhagen. The methods and yeast strains originally developed to make your pint taste "hoppy" or "full" have contributed to some of the most seminal discoveries in molecular biology in the past century (and continue to do so). I mean, how cool is that!
I think, what we should do, is actually show people that science is cool. And that regular people, not Sheldons, do science. I think Andy Weir, Ridley Scott, and Matt Damon have done impeccably in this endeavour with The Martian. (Read the book, people!)
Mark Watney shows that science is actually about educated guesswork, improvising with what you have and making things work, messing around with hazardous chemicals, deftly ignoring false leads, and getting properly stuck into problems to solve them, one by one.
In other words, what do I actually do?
I get to play with expensive equipment and radioactivity, ask and answer questions about the fascinating mechanisms of life itself, and generally science the shit out of things.
I love what I do. I hope that others can understand, at the very least, why I do it.