I spent June 12 – 15 in Microsoft’s appropriately-named NERD Center near MIT in Cambridge, MA. In its third iteration (but only second national one), ComSciCon trains 50 graduate students selected by application to be better communicators of their science. This workshop is unique in that it is put on by graduate students for graduate students; the workshop was directly tuned to the needs and interests of graduate students and was organized flawlessly and enthusiastically. We participated in speaking exercises, interacted with panel speakers invited to speak on various topics, and received expert feedback on science writing for submission to a non-academic publication.
Introduction to giving constructive feedback to each other’s ~800 word writing submissions.
I could probably write separate entries on each of the 5 panels, the 2-hour improve session, the peer editing process followed by feedback from science writing professionals, and the day-long workshop with local K-12 science teachers. But I’ll restrict myself to a few of the speakers, concepts, and activities I found particularly valuable. Interested readers can find the whole program with speaker bios here.
Improving Diversity Through Communication Panel: L-R Dr. Monica Feliu-Mojer (Mgr. of Outreach Programs for Biostatistics Dept, U Washington); Dr. Renee Hlozek (astronomer and TED fellow); ComSciCon moderator; Dr. John Johnson (Harvard Astronomy Professor, diversity advocate); Dr. Brindha Muniappan (Director of Education and Public Programs at the MIT museum).
The Keynote Speaker, Dr. Bassam Shakhashiri, is a chemistry professor at UW Madison who has been a staunch proponent of science education; he personally gives chemistry demonstrations in settings ranging from school classrooms to shopping malls. In the 1980s, he served as Assistant Director for Science and Engineering Education at the National Science Foundation, and more recently he has served as President of the American Chemical Society (ACS, 2012), formed the ACS Presidential Commission on Grad Education in the Chemical Sciences, the ACS Climate Science Working Group, and the ACS Global Water Initiative Working Group. He generously attended the entire workshop, participating in discussions and exercises with the graduate students; at the workshop conclusion he gave his address, challenging all of us to think about our role as scientists in society.
In his lecture, “Enlightenment and Responsibilities of the Enlightened,” Dr. Shakhashiri called us to become citizen-scientists, using the freedom we have to pursue our scientific curiosity to fulfill our responsibility to the earth and to humanity. He pointed out that the gap between the science-rich sector and the science-poor sectors of society is widening and that we don’t need to impart scientific competence and expertise upon everyone but rather engender science literacy and a sense of appreciation for science. Although the social, political, and economic implications of a changing climate and changing cryosphere motivated my return to school, I spend too little time thinking about scientists’ responsibility to serve society. I found his talk thought-provoking, boundary-pushing, and inspirational.
Keynote speaker Dr. Shakhashiri closed his talk with a demonstration he often gives to school groups and public audiences.
Another speaker who challenged my basic conception of science communication was Jennifer Briselli, who studies the failures and difficulties in science communication. Communication with scientific facts alone is often ineffective because a person’s values and cultural worldview influence how receptive they are. She looks at science communication from the lens of the non-scientific audience member rather than from the perspective of the scientist; she provided valuable insight into the roadblocks associated with communication and how to address them.
Other speakers who stand out were: Dr. Ana Unruh Cohen, Director of Energy, Climate and Natural Resources for Senator Edward J. Markey (D-MA); Soren Wheeler, Senior Producer at Radiolab; Dr. Donna J. Nelsen, organic chemistry professor at U Oklahoma and science adviser for TV hit series Breaking Bad; and Jeff Lieberman, who provided an artist’s perspective through sharing his work relating science, art, consciousness, and the human experience. Seldom do we hear people talk about emotion as a tool for communicating science, but he does so with astounding brilliance.
ComSciCon isn’t just about how to communicate with different audiences, it is also about practicing! Each participant had to give a 1-minute “pop-talk” about his or her work without using any scientific terms. The audience held up “JARGON” or “AWESOME” cards throughout the pop-talks to let the speaker know how well he/she was achieving this. There was no option to extend past the 1-minute (a loud noise went off), and doing justice to a dissertation topic in just one minute required some practice.
Pinar Gurel, PhD Candidate in Dartmouth’s Microbial and Cellular Biology program, and I holding up the signs for the pop-talks.
I found it stimulating to be around 49 other PhD students who were genuinely excited about pursuing research across a wider range of topics than could be found at any other conference: soil microbes to planetary formation, pancreatic cancer to lizard reproduction, and nose stem cells to napping.
Dr. Todd Zakrajsek, executive director at the Academy of Educators, UNC-Chapel Hill, giving the Keynote address of Sunday’s session on K-12 STEM education. On this last day of the workshop, graduate students, teachers, and education professionals participated in a series of lectures, discussions, and curriculum development exercises.
I left Cambridge with better scientific writing and speaking skills, a network of colleagues across scientific disciplines who are all highly motivated and deeply committed to sharing their work, and a deeper conviction about why communicating science well is not only important but absolutely necessary.
“Is it enough for a scientist simply to publish a paper? Isn’t it the responsibility of scientists, if you believe that you have found something that can affect the environment, isn’ it you responsibility to actually do something about it, enough so that action actually takes place? … If not us, who? If not now, when?” – F. Sherwood Rowland