When we are asked a question, we must answer two things. We must answer the question of course, but we must also answer the person asking the question. As a parent, I grapple with this all the time.
“Daddy, what are the colors of the rainbow?” my daughter asks me as a little test.
“Well, that would be red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet too” I respond to her in the singsong voice from the show Sid the Science kid. I answered both her and her question.
I could mention that it used to be 5 or 6, we only have 7 because Sir Issac Newton was obsessed with the number 7. (The reason for 7 may not be true but he did coin the 7 colors)
But the real answer is actually infinity. The rainbow is a spectrum of colors meaning you are seeing every just about every color in the visible spectrum, and all the shades in-between them.
The manner in which I answer depends on the person. With my daughter, I answer both the question and the person. There is a way she needs to hear the answer in order for it to make sense (she doesn’t get infinity yet or spectrums). It is (and always will be) a judgement call on how to answer these questions.
“Daddy, how are babies made?”
“Uh…go ask your mom…”
What the asker should know about the scientist is to a certain extent, we are trained to answer just the question itself. In the end, it doesn’t matter how we figure out that A does something to B (at least to most people), it only matters that we figure out how A indeed does something with B (ethically of course). We don’t have to worry about if B or A will understand our answer as to what they do. A and B are what they do. They are defined in this way, before and independent of how we define them. The functions of A and B will never change, we as scientists may only find a new or novel function for them. Their function is static.
You the asker however is dynamic and we should treat you as such. We are dynamic in how we do science as well, but that is another post altogether. You are from different backgrounds, you are from different cultures, you are even different now than you were 5 minutes ago (most likely, 5 minutes ago you would have said the rainbow has 7 colors). We must be dynamic in our responses, not static. But how?
Well, back to the question at hand, how to answer the “what do you do as a scientists” from the scientist point of view. This question can also asked as “what science do you work on?” It takes good judgement to answer because you must answer the question and person. I have previously given a funnel analogy to help here, but now I offer another bit of advice. This may be simple or well known, but it is often omitted.
Come up with a question that might demonstrate that they have unwittingly had experience in your area. Then, try to involve them in your answer. My example is I work with how bacteria process metals in the host, so my first questions are what do you pack in your suitcase (you bring things with you but bacteria can’t bring things with them when they infect you, so where to the get the nutrients they need to survive) and do you take vitamins (they contain the nutrients including metals I study). Find these questions, whatever your field may be. It has been my experience that when people are involved in the answer, they understand it better. There are of course more ways to answer the person and I encourage you to find out a way that suits you best. Maybe try talking to a non-scientist once they know what your project is about. Ask them what finally made the light bulb go off in their head in understanding your work.
Think of your best teachers growing up, what what their style? Did they teach just the subject material, standing up spewing fact after fact, or did they also teach and connect to you?
Talk TO the person to connect to them, not down, not up. TO the person, TO the asker. This is the best way to answer the question and the person, and they will understand what you say and do a whole lot more.