Three graduate students from College of Sciences attended the inaugural Communicating Science Conference—Atlanta (ComSciCon-Atlanta), held on March 1-2, 2018, at Georgia Tech. Like the 46 other participants, they wanted to improve how to talk to nonscientists about their research.
The conference program comprised lectures, panel discussions, breakout sessions, and networking. Attendees listened, learned, and practiced what they learned on the spot. The three College of Sciences participants came away with practical tips that they can immediately apply to their graduate studies.
Audra Davidson is a second-year Ph.D. student majoring in applied physiology in the School of Biological Sciences. She came to Georgia Tech after obtaining a B.S. in Kinesiology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research, she says, “examines how the way we move interacts with the way we think, by investigating how healthy subjects and patients use their motor system during cognitive tasks such as reading words.”
Justin Lanier is a third-year Ph.D. student in the School of Mathematics. He received a B.A. in Liberal Arts at St. John’s College, in Annapolis, Maryland. Lanier studies the symmetries of surfaces and how they interact. “The questions I try to answer about surfaces,” he says, “are related to the fact that just a few different moves of a Rubik’s cube can combine to create every possible scramble.”
Justin Lawrence is a second-year Ph.D. student studying planetary sciences in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. He earned his B.S. in Environmental Geoscience from Boston College. Using the least number of words, Lawrence describes his research thus: “Life-finding Antarctic submersibles as practice for Europa.” One of Jupiter’s moons, ice-covered Europa is a target for scientists looking for life outside of Earth. Lawrence’s Ph.D. supervisor, Britney Schmidt, leads a team that is using the Antarctic to test probes that could pierce through Europa’s icy surface and search for life in the waters beneath.
In the following, Q&A Davidson, Lanier, and Lawrence reflect on their experiences at ComSciCon-Atlanta.
How did the conference meet your expectations?
Davidson: This conference wildly exceeded my expectations. From the experienced panelists and complex discussion topics, to the level of engagement and passion of every attendee, this conference was far better than I expected it to be. It’s amazing what can happen when you put a constant supply of caffeine and a lot of passionate scientists studying wildly different topics in the same room for two days!
Lanier: I was hoping to get a sense of publishing opportunities and to learn general-purpose tools and lenses for effective science communication. I also hoped to connect with other scientists interested in communicating with the public. The conference exceeded all these expectations.
Lawrence: I was hoping for more concrete activities and outcomes than what shorter meetings or seminars often deliver. ComSciCon-Atlanta proved to be just that. Organized by fellow graduate students in rigorous, quantitative fields, the workshops and panel discussions addressed useful, tangible strategies to improve our ability to communicate.
What did you find most useful, interesting, or engaging?
Lanier: Because almost all of the conferences I attend are focused on one discipline, it was exciting to interact with graduate students from a wide range of disciplines. I really enjoyed and appreciated the storytelling session – in which participants told a two-minute story to a partner, got feedback, and retold the now-improved story, to a second partner. It was useful to spend some time thinking about different ways to tell stories, because it’s easy to get in a rut and tell science stories in only certain kinds of ways
Lawrence: I particularly enjoyed the “Write-A-Thon.” We developed pieces on a scientific subject of our choice and went through peer and professional editing over the weeks leading to the conference. Working with an expert to refine a popular article I wrote greatly improved my work. I can apply the lessons I learned to most of the work I do.
Davidson: I loved hearing about other people’s work during the one-minute “Pop Talks.” Everyone’s research was different but we shared a passion for communicating our science to the public. Interacting with the other attendees helped me refine how I talk about my work. The real-time feedback during the “Pop Talks” – when the audience raised signs saying AWESOME or JARGON as the presenter spoke – is one helpful idea that I will take with me.
What practical lessons did learn?
- Tell stories. People respond to stories and personal experiences more than they do to facts.
- Scientists must communicate; it’s pointless to do the work if it cannot be effectively shared. Publicly funded researchers have an obligation to communicate their work. Communicating to audiences outside of one’s field shouldn’t be viewed as “dumbing things down’ or oversimplifying. Scientists must instead distill their work to the most essential, clear components.
- When writing for the public, do not follow the linear flow of academic writing. Lead with the subject and talk about implications without burying the readers in background.
- Think creatively about how to think. The conference offered different ways to do this, including real-time feedback, improvisational techniques, and the use of humor. I found these tactics helpful and inspiring.
- Engage with scientists outside your field. This helps inspire creativity and collaboration and forces you to explain your work to someone who has no background in your field.
- Facts can’t counter stories, but other stories can. Scientists are frustrated when others are not swayed by facts. To engage with the public, you must listen to their stories. Explaining your science in a way that relates to their experience may influence their opinions better than just insisting on facts.
- I realized the importance of explaining the nature and goals of pure mathematics research, not only to the public but also even to a scientifically trained audience.
- I got lots of great advice about structuring writing for a general audience, like leading with intriguing details and cutting quickly to the chase.
- I learned innovative and inspiring ways to share science with a wider audience, for example, the blog posts at Astrobites and Chembites.
ComSciCon is the brainchild of graduate students at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who founded the annual workshop in 2013. Since then, ComSciCon has expanded beyond the annual meeting to a dozen local meetings throughout the country.
Laura Mast, a Ph.D. student in the Georgia Tech School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, led the inaugural ComSciCon-Atlanta. Her co-organizers were Carleenmae Sabusap, a graduate student in the University of Alabama, Birmingham; Anzar Abbas, a graduate student in Emory University; and Kellie Vinal, previously a postdoctoral researcher at Emory University and now a freelance science communicator. Vinal is the coordinator of the Atlanta Science Festival, the Atlanta producer of Story Collider, and scientist in residence at STE(A)M Truck.