Learning how to Communicate Science

I’ve been writing this blog for a few years in my spare time. Having a full time job (and an eleven month old daughter) doesn’t provide a lot of spare time to write, much less to work on and think deeply about how I communicate on my blog or elsewhere.

This summer, I decided to take the time to think about science communication and acquire some more tools to communication to the public better by taking the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) Art of Science Communication course. Using a combination of video lessons and weekly group Skype discussions, this 6 week course crammed in information about why scientists should communicate to the public, how to do it, and probably most importantly, how not to do it.

The Art of Science Communication

In comparison to others in the class, I think I had more experience than many in public communication. But that being said, I took home a few interesting messages:

  1. Scientific studies have shown that telling people facts does not effectively communicate science (what’s known as the deficit model).  Learning this, I immediately regretted many of my blog posts excitedly describing science facts in an attempt to help the public understand it.
  2. Engaging and understanding your audience is key. One way to engage is by “framing” the science in a way that provides context (economic, ethical, emotional, etc). I love framing both in scientific and public talks because that explains why the science is interesting.
  3. I like tangents. This might be obvious (and certainly wasn’t a surprise to me), but I hadn’t realized what a big problem this was until I gave my first presentation (more on that below), and got distracted with all of the other “interesting stuff.” This interesting stuff distracted from the main message and diluted the effectiveness of what I was trying to convey.
  4. You can’t say more than one thing at the same time. Also obvious. But when planning a talk or a blog post or a conversation, knowing what order things should come out in ends up being critical in creating an effective talk.

What about these talks? The course was flanked by recording a pre-course talk and a final, new and improved talk about your research. I love talking in front of an audience, but I haven’t spent a lot of time in front of the camera. I also haven’t given many (if any) talks without PowerPoint slides. But I overcame the fear and the crutch and went for it. If you’re interested, here’s my final talk (the pre-course talk is here).

One Minute Science

Besides being a great learning experience, this course inspired me to start a new YouTube series in collaboration with GotScience called One Minute Science. Launching this fall, I will talk about something cool in biology or health for one minute (or less).  This will force me to focus on what really matters – fascinating science and why it matters. Stay tuned!!!

Final note: if you are a scientist interested in science communication, I encourage you to take this class. It’s only $100 and you learn a ton even if you devote only a few hours a week. Next session applications are open September 4th.

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