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Telling the Story of Science

Posted Monday, 16 June 2014

During January 2014, the GSAS workshop ComSciCon Local helped young researchers learn how to communicate complex and technical ideas in a way that makes them vivid and comprehensible to a broad audience. Organized by Communicating Science, an organization founded and run by PhD students from Harvard and MIT, the workshop culminated with students preparing brief articles that answered the question, “What surprising role will your field take in explaining, shaping, or solving a problem faced by society this century?” Below is one student’s response. This is the introduction to a four part series.


 

A grassroots, student-led effort to train PhD scientists to describe their research with clarity and eloquence draws interest from far and wide

When Nathan Sanders thinks about an average day in his life as a graduate student—answering e-mail from students or his adviser, mapping out a new course he’s teaching, finessing a presentation of his research results—he sees that the skill he draws on most is one he hasn’t been taught since his first year in college: communication. As a scientist for whom public outreach has always been important, Sanders realized early in his PhD program that for scientists to succeed not only in building their careers but in teaching their students and advocating for their work, the ability to talk with broad audiences is key.

It’s why he and fellow PhD students in the Department of Astronomy founded Astrobites, a daily astrophysical literature journal written by graduate students for undergraduates, aiming to promote interest in careers in astronomy.

And it’s why he and peers at Harvard and MIT launched Communicating Science (ComSciCon), a series of conferences and workshops for fellow graduate students focused on the clear and persuasive communication of complex and technical concepts. ComSciCon held a national conference in June 2013, drawing more than 700 applicants for 50 slots and bringing in an impressive array of faculty members and professional science communicators for workshop sessions and mentoring. The group offered a smaller-scale, local workshop in January for Harvard and MIT students, again drawing more applicants than it could accept. That event culminated in a keynote address by NPR correspondent David Kestenbaum (PhD ’96), which was open to the general public and attended by about 300 people.

ComSciCon convened its second national workshop in June 2014, to be held once again in the Cambridge offices of one of its sponsors, Microsoft New England Research and Development Center. Applications increased by 20 percent over last year, to 878, for just 50 slots.

“Understanding how to communicate the motivations for, methods of, and results of research is a critical skill in the 21st-century practice of science,” Sanders says. “It’s critical because the most important outcomes of research come from convincing nonspecialists—the general public, policymakers, and entrepreneurs—that what we do is important and relevant; because the support for current research depends on public awareness and appreciation of the research we do; and because the future of our field depends on the engagement of young people.”

For the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, an early sponsor of ComSciCon, such student-led efforts provide important professional development skills even as they encourage the sharing of knowledge. “Our students are future leaders in their fields, and they have the potential to be future policy leaders as well, advocating for the essential role of science in addressing a wide variety of societal challenges,” says GSAS Administrative Dean Margot Gill. “Communication skills will be vital to their success—to their professional growth and to their ability to advance the impact of new discoveries.”

Kara Manke, ComSciCon’s other co-chair (and a chemistry PhD student at MIT), agrees: “If my own experience is accurate, encouraging more scientists to communicate directly with non-scientists will not only benefit the public’s understanding of the field, but will also help improve the quality of scientific research by forcing scientists to think more critically about their own work.”

For Sanders, ComSciCon’s student-to-student ethos is key. “It’s hugely significant that only 1 in 5 attendees of our January workshop—a population highly self-selected for interest and engagement in outreach and education programs—report that they regularly communicate about research with people outside of their field,” he says. “The problem is that few opportunities exist to do this, even though graduate students are the broad base of the academic research pyramid and better positioned than any other group to serve as ambassadors for science and scholarship. Programs like ComSciCon, and the student-led initiatives and collaborations that spin off from it, are the best way to create these opportunities for young researchers.”

 

Story Credit: Bari Walsh