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’s one thing that people don’t know about your job, but should?

On Facebook the other day, a post come up with answers to this question: what’s one thing that people don’t know about your job, but should?  I wish I could share the link, but I just can’t seem to find it. Perhaps this means that my answer to this question should be “Even though I’m a researcher, I can’t find everything I’m looking for by Google searching either.”

Joking aside, I have spent the last several days thinking about this question and what the answer is for me.  I’ve also asked my husband who is a Neuro ICU nurse and everyone else I’ve come into contact recently. For the record, the hubby’s response was that even though you only have two patients that you pay attention to for your 12 hour shift, they take up all your time and you barely have time to sit, eat or do anything else. (He’s such an awesome nurse!!)

Me - my first day as a newly minted PhD scientist!

Me – my first day as a newly minted PhD scientist!

I keep changing my answer the more I think about it. In part, this blog tries to demystify what being a scientist is all about.  I think I tell you about things all the time that you probably didn’t know about, like what a scientific meeting is like, how does the grad school experience work, and what in the world I do at an Institutional Review Board meeting. Also, as a scientist, I think one of the main things I want people to know about the profession as a whole is that scientists aren’t just one type or stereotype. Scientists can be nerds, we can work in the lab, but we are also in business, policy, the arts (and be nerdy or not – it all depends!).  We also have hobbies outside of the lab. I play in a handbell choir and love to bike ride bar hop. Friends of mine have hobbies as diverse as raising carnivorous plants, riding horses, or long-distance biking.  We’re just people too!!

But what if I had to choose JUST ONE thing about MY JOB that I’d want people to know. I think it would be the critical importance of communication. I spend the majority of the day communicating my thoughts and vision to my team, to my leadership, and to other people who will help my team achieve our goals.  I write papers and grants with the goal of communicating to reviewers, other researchers and funders the importance of my work. I communicate with people throughout the hospital asking questions, solving problems and working together to achieve our shared goals.

I know that communication is an important part of many (most?) jobs, but perhaps it is a bit surprising to non-scientist that it is so necessary for a scientist.  Maybe what I really mean is that so much of what I do every day, I can’t do on my own.  I rely on so many other people. Science isn’t a solitary as you might think!!

Then again, in 10 minutes I may think of something that I would want to people to know about my job EVEN MORE. Fortunately, I have this blog, and I can tell you all about it then – and I will.

What about you? What is your job and something that people don’t know about your job but should?  Share in the comments!