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.

What is a blog?

One of my puppies, Indy, hanging out with us outside today

One of my puppies, Indy, hanging out with us outside today

I had high hopes today of writing many great and interesting things about genetics. But instead, I spent the day outside watching my puppies chase lizards, playing cards and enjoying the weather.  And if you are in New England (like my family is), I’m so sorry.  You should have spent spring break with me.

Speaking of my family, my family has been reading this blog since I started it.  This includes my Mom, who wants to comment on every post, but doesn’t want to post her name. I end up learning a lot from her and others non-blog-posted feedback, and the first thing I realized is that a lot of people don’t know what a blog is!!  Since my target audience is my mom and other people who may not read a lot of other blogs, I thought I’d take a moment to just describe a blog.

All of my journals from years and years of on and off writing

All of my journals from years and years of on and off writing

Blog is short for weblog.  Essentially any person who wants to talk about anything can start a blog online.  You could think of it as a public journal or an online method to express some type of viewpoint or convey certain information or even as a method to sell a product or idea. Usually blogs have a specific focus.  In my case, I have three main things I hope to accomplish with this blog:

  • Talk about science in a way that everyone can understand
  • Provide interesting books and links to websites that you can read to learn even more!
  • Tell stories about my journey and the lives of scientists so that when you hear the word “scientist”, you don’t first think of describing us as “mad” or imagine a photo of Einstein.

My favorite blogs are as diverse as they are addicting.  Some have to do with science, like I f**king love science or Pharyngula.  Some are associated with major online news magazines like Future Tense.  While others are mommyblogs like dooce that are a hilarious view of life with kids, but with a philanthropic edge. Because there are over 150 million blogs out there, everyone creates their blog a little differently and posts different things.  It’s like having 150 million different magazines at your fingertips (with varying levels of quality and content).

Now that you know what a blog is, what do you do about them?  If you find a blog that you like, you can bookmark the URL and check it out every once in a while to read whatever new things they have posted.  Many blogs are also linked to Facebook or Twitter pages.  You can follow this blog’s Facebook page here or my Twitter feed here.  Whenever I post something on this blog, it will automatically be posted to both Facebook and Twitter, and then you can click on the link to go and read the new post.  Or you can join the mailing list (look to the right side of the screen – there should be a place to sign up), which will email you whenever I post something new.

However you find this blog, I just hope you enjoy it and learn something.  And please don’t be afraid to post a comment or question! That’s what I’m doing this for!