By Bhaavya Srivastava, 2nd year PhD student, Department of Neurobiology and Behavior
In a world where fake news and misinformation is rampant, accurate yet understandable communication is key. This is true not only for policy makers, political stakeholders, the media, and the general public, but for scientists as well. However, for many researchers, getting into the field of science communication can be a daunting task: there are countless avenues to broadcast your research, so where do you even start?
The Science Communication Workshop (COMM 5660), an intensive weekend workshop offered every semester here at Cornell, is an inspirational first step. Led by Bruce Lewenstein, Professor of Science Communication, this course is an introduction to the different ways people can get into the field, both in a communication and journalism context.
Over three chilly days in early fall, I got my first chance to delve into science communication through this workshop. The students in the course included doctoral and master’s students from a variety of different fields, ranging from Human Ecology to Physics and Computational Biology, all at different points in their careers. However, I believe I can speak for all of us when I say that the course was extremely useful, not just in learning the advantages and disadvantages of Twitter versus Facebook versus innumerable blogging sites, but also in actually learning how to convey your research in a manner that anyone could understand, while still retaining its core message.
The workshop began on a Friday with a panel of speakers, all involved in Cornell and science communication. Their communication mediums included podcasts, science editing and writing, and public outreach. A few of the panelists were Cynthia Leifer, co-host of the Immune podcast, David Pizarro, co-host of the Very Bad Wizards podcast, Linda Rayor, Director of the Naturalist Outreach program, and Lyza Maron, a science writer and storyteller at Plant Editors. All the panelists provided different perspectives on getting involved with and finding your niche in science communication, noting that sometimes opportunities came out of the blue. A particularly common theme that stood out to me was that for many of the panelists, their forays into science communication started as something personal and small, a project they began for their own enjoyment. However, in part fueled by their own passion for the subject, they became bigger and more well-known to a larger audience, beyond just their friends and colleagues.
As someone whose primary focus with regards to communication had always been writing, particularly in a journalism context, it was eye-opening to see how people branched out into mediums that I had never considered, such as science education and outreach, and of course, podcasts. Furthermore, the panelists all emphasized the importance of communication in today’s world, from hot topics like vaccination to more mundane aspects like explaining to a relative what exactly it is you do.
The next two days of the workshop focused primarily on hands-on activities, and truly gave us a taste of what a career in science communication entails. All participants practiced approaching our research from different perspectives, including: a journalist, who is seeking to inform the public; a researcher, trying to appeal to other scientists and prospective students; and communicators, publicizing institutional research in understandable terms. After learning basic writing and journalism terms and tips, we ventured into actually writing and distilling our own research, using different tactics to appeal to different audiences. The course covered a broad range of media: short-form tweets, blog posts, news articles in magazines aimed at a variety of consumers, science outreach, publicity, and press releases, and so on. Not only did we get practice writing and communicating, we also got feedback, both from the other workshop attendees as well as Dr. Lewenstein himself. We even got to practice being interviewed for an informative talk show!
At the end of the workshop, we had all learned how difficult – yet how imperative – it can be to create a message about your research that can be translated for other people, with varied backgrounds and interests. Ultimately, as people are bombarded with vast amounts of information every day, the skill of understanding how to present your research to an audience beyond the scientists in your field is critical. Furthermore, science journalism is a viable career path in and of itself, and coming into the field with both a communicator’s and a scientist’s perspective is invaluable. This course serves as a first step towards being a better science communicator, whatever that may look like for you.
Find out more about the course, and additional reading and resources for scientific communication here.