health & science

Science communication: the icing on the cake

In the era of the elevator pitch, young scientists set themselves a task: explain your research using only a chocolate cake. Eloise Gibson checks out their baking.

When Louis Schipper won a prestigious award for outstanding contributions to soil science, he knew right away what he had to do. He sifted flour, cracked an egg and baked a cake in the shape of his trophy – a specialist dirt-sampling instrument called an auger. “Think of a screw that you screw into the soil, trapping soil in the spaces between the metal,” explains Schipper when I ask what an auger does. "It's how you sample soil without digging a hole."

Instantly, I get it. Schipper is an excellent science communicator. Many young scientists, at least initially, are not, partly because they know so much. An inability to convey their research simply is a problem, since a lot of research is publicly-funded and we non-scientists are counting on them to solve pressing issues. Even eminent professors confess they sometimes can’t understand the technical papers written by people outside their own fields.

That’s why Schipper sets his students a challenge. They must distil their research to its simplest essence and present the results on a cake: a research cake.

The favoured medium of expression is chocolate cake, since it’s the most delicious flavour, and the students plan to eat it. Icing is a common tool for illustrating research findings. Other popular materials include jellybeans (used to represent units of carbon dioxide), jelly, nuts, coconut and dried noodles (which, as one enterprising student discovered, can be used to quantify the greenhouse emissions from cow wee).

Since Schipper is a professor of soil science at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, the nation’s unofficial dairying capital, his students tend to research things that will help dairy farms become cleaner or more profitable. But Schipper has started a Facebook group where researchers from anywhere can submit their cake photos. There are only two rules for submissions: the cake must be edible, and it must tell a story.

“I strongly believe that if science is pitched the right way pretty much anybody can get their heads around it.”

“I don’t want people to think they have to create an amazing sculpture with hidden nuance,” says Schipper. “Some of the people in our group come from cultures that don’t make cakes. Some don’t bake. We’re not judging,” he says. “For me, it’s a hook. You need to find different ways of conveying what I think is an amazing world, and what you are doing to try to understand how that world might work, and fix its problems,” he says. “I strongly believe that if science is pitched the right way pretty much anybody can get their heads around it.”

The cakes themselves are not always of bake-off quality, but much effort goes into honing the ideas to a nub small enough to fit on a cake-top. “Some of them think about it for six months. ‘How am I going to do this and what is the key thing that I’m trying to convey?,” says Schipper. The thinking process is both healthy and confronting. “They’ve got all this activity going on and all this reading, but ultimately a research project is a very narrow thing. It’s about trying to answer one small question, which can feel kind of deflating. But if you can answer one question really well, you will have achieved something. 'Yes, you need to learn all the techniques and read all the literature, but can you boil it down?',” he asks.

 “The trick is to not try to explain everything. It’s opening a door to the main finding. You’re just opening up a little light on the subject.”

We asked Schipper’s students to share a few examples of their baking. The full set of cakes is here.

1. Baker: Jasmine Robinson

Materials: Six delicious chocolate cakes, chocolate buttercream icing, a truck load of fondant and green jelly coolant.

Title: “Temperature dependence of soil respiration.”

What it shows: For Robinson’s thesis she used a large aluminium block, heated at one end and cooled at the other, to incubate soils and measure the CO2 they released. Even Schipper was a little intimidated by the quality of this cake. "She could easily be a baker," he says. The full paper Robinson wrote on her findings is here:

Why it matters: Bare soil is an important source of CO2 but farmers could help slow climate change by coaxing soil to store more carbon. To work out how to do that, they need to know under what conditions – including temperature – soil sucks and stores the maximum carbon.

2. Baker: Susanna Rutledge.

Materials: Chocolate cake, coloured icing, jellybeans.

Title: “Carbon balance of a dairy farm.”

What it shows: Rutledge studied the carbon balance of a dairy farm over four years. Her cake shows the average carbon inputs and outputs of the farm, represented in units of jellybeans. The net CO2 stored during the year is at the top of the cake. The cake's left side shows other inputs of carbon to the farm, like imported feed and effluent. The right side shows carbon outputs, including milk, silage and methane (cow burps). She’s assumed that the balance (three jelly beans) is stored in the soil. Schipper was very impressed by the scientific accuracy of this cake, which extends down to the precise translation of quantities of CO2 into jellybeans. 

Why it matters: Knowing how much carbon can be stored in soils under different farming techniques is hugely important for making soils healthy and reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. It's important to measure the process accurately, which is what Rutledge did for four years at one Waikato dairy farm.

3. Baker: Sheree Balvert.

Materials: Chocolate cake, dried noodles, white icing and chocolate icing.

Title: “Reducing nitrous oxide emissions.”

What it shows: Balvert took samples of soil and applied some compounds taken from brassica plants (brassica is the family of vegetables including cabbage and broccoli). She wanted to see if the compounds reduced the nitrous oxide emissions from cow urine. (Strictly no urine was applied to the research cake). On the left of the cake is the soil treated with compounds. The right side is the untreated soil. The resulting nitrous oxide emissions are shown using vertical noodles: longer noodles mean higher emissions. What the cake shows is that the compounds worked; they reduced emissions, as shown by the shorter noodles on the cake’s left side. The full paper is here.

Why it matters: Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse warmer many times more potent than carbon dioxide and it sticks around in the atmosphere for a very long time. New Zealand’s farm animals produce oodles of it, especially derived from their urine. The Government has promised to reduce these emissions, the question is, how?

4. Baker: Louis Schipper

Materials: Chocolate cake, white icing.

Title: “Norman Taylor’s auger."

What it shows: Norman Taylor, a pioneering New Zealand soil scientist, gave his name to a prestigious lecture delivered every two years by a distinguished scientist of the New Zealand Society of Soil Science. The honour comes with a trophy – Taylor’s auger, which has been silver-plated and mounted on a wooden board. When Schipper received the honour last year, he told the assembled scientists about his students’ research cakes. And, of course, he baked a cake commemorating the event.

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