19 Jan

I’ve Been M.I.A.

I must apologize for being missing for the past several months. I have been dealing with a lot of personal stress as well as school stress and took a break from blogging to address most of the issues.

I took this time to re-evaluate what I want to get out of this blog. Mostly, I want to have a place to vent about being a graduate student, but I also want to have a forum to educate the masses about the wonders that are science! I am starting the new year with the goal to write a post twice a week. We’ll see if the chaos allows more.

One of the biggest stressors but also my greatest passion has been that I was elected to the inaugural Outreach Officer to our graduate student association. My job is to decide what exactly the position will be responsible for as well as coordinate the outreach events our organization takes part. My biggest problem, in general, is the ability to say “no” to tasks that I cannot complete (whether it is because I don’t know how or, the more likely, that I already have too much on my plate). This position has allowed me to expand as a person by becoming comfortable with saying “No” to things I can’t/don’t want to do.

In the fall semester, I coordinated volunteers and activities for three events at local elementary and middle schools. I also developed and executed a workshop that was designed for our local Women in Science and Engineering “Expanding Your Horizons” workshop for sixth-grade girls. All of these events were successful and tons of fun!

The best part happened today.

I received contact from a local eighth-grade science teacher to coordinate demos starting in March at a local middle school. I also received contact from a science instructional coach (here is a good job posting that describes what a SIC does). I will hopefully be meeting with her soon to discuss what our group can contribute to the local school system.

As I’ve become more and more involved, I’ve realized I have a very large passion for outreach and science education. I think I have finally found what I want to be when I grow up! Now to figure out how to get there.

Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world. Science is the highest personification of the nation because that nation will remain the first which carries the furthest the works of thought and intelligence. – Louis Pasteur

29 Apr

Communicating Science

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One of the many things I’m learning in graduate school is how to communicate my research to fellow scientist. This includes seminar talks within my department to fellow students, giving a poster presentation to recruits, or giving a presentation (either poster or oral) at a national conference. Being able to quickly and coherently summarize your research is vital (affectionately referred to as your “Elevator Speech”). It allows you to create collaborations with fellow scientist, convey the importance of your research to the grant committee (can’t do science without money!), but most importantly, it allows you to educate the general public about your work.

The Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology writes that “although traditional scientific training typically does not prepare scientists and engineers to be effective communicators outside of academia, funding agencies and research institutions are increasingly encouraging researchers to extend beyond peer-reviewed publishing and communicate their results directly to the greater public.” Despite this, as an academic, we still focus on high-level, academic speaking, which works for seminars but doesn’t really work for speaking generally about research to non-academics.

So how do we go about solving this dilemma?

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Tell a compelling story! This first tip seems kind of obvious. In order to get people to listen to you, you have to grab their attention. As with any story, you should have a beginning (your introduction), a middle (the meat of your research, the data), and an end (your conclusion). It’s important to stress why what you are researching is important.

Be straight-forward and simple. Remember the acronym K.I.S.S.? Keep It Simple Stupid! Nowhere is this more important than when trying to explain your science to the non-academics of the general population. They don’t want to hear you ramble on about a technique when the results are what is important. Something I’ve learned over the years is that the more you understand a topic, the easier it is for you to explain it in simple terms. As Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

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Practice, practice, practice! Seriously, practice, especially in front of others. What makes perfect sense to you may not be so clear to someone who doesn’t spend their waking moments engulfed in the topic. As grad students, we are always giving talks somewhere. In my department, I just send an email to our graduate association asking if anyone wants free food for an hour of their time. My last practice had 10-12 people show up (we all know the best way to get a grad student to show up is to offer food!).

What advice do you have for communicating science to general audiences?