Science Communication for All: Perspectives and Tools for Implementation in Research, the Classroom, and the Community

March 30, 2018

Did you know that traveling to space can change 7% of your DNA? This was the incorrect science news story circulating online after a recent study found gene expression changes between Scott Kelly, a NASA astronaut who recently spent a year in space, and his brother, Mark, who stayed on Earth. Failing to differentiate between gene expression changes and genetic changes led to the misinterpretation of the published report in some parts of the media, but also created an opportunity for scientists and science communicators to reflect on what went wrong – and what can be done to improve science communications in the future. To help address this matter, the newest Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education issue is focused on science communication – as a training tool for early career scientists, as a method for successful public engagement, and as a means to drive change at your institution.

JMBE: Read the full issue here

I was an Invited Editor for the issue, and was blown away by the outstanding work presented by all the authors. I’ve been teaching in the microbial sciences for the past 8 years and am fully aware of the importance of science communication in the classroom. I’m also heavily involved (and have been for the past 8 years) in outreach efforts at my institution, the University of Texas, San Antonio. We are a minority-serving institution that reflects the population within our city. This demographic brings different challenges to our outreach and science communication efforts due to the large number of non-English speakers we encounter in the community. I regularly work with high school teachers and students in my community to bring attention to the microbial sciences earlier in the educational trajectory of students (both in English and in Spanish).

Participating in outreach work helps me appreciate the difficulties in speaking to a wide variety of audiences. It also constantly reminds me of the importance of accurate dissemination of scientific information, and how hard it can be to explain scientific concepts without relying on technical jargon! The papers presented in this issue tackle different aspects of science communication such as training at different stages of career development, public engagement, and suggestions and activities to invoke cultural change. The papers also provide a multitude of resources and tools for those of us involved in scientific communication or wanting to begin.

This issue is reminiscent of ASM Culture Magazine’s Noise Issue in that it makes a strong case for the importance of compelling, powerful, and accurate science communication in all aspects of science. This JMBE issue combines a broad range of science communication resources, perspectives, and information from experts at the cutting edge of science communication research. With the papers presented in this issue, the readers should be able to easily:

  1. Understand good scientific communication techniques and implement them into student training.  
  2. Apply best practices when engaging the public or scientifically untrained audiences. 
  3. Acquire the knowledge to evoke change at their institutions, which can lead to the implementation of better scientific communication training for current and future scientists. 

Incorporate Science Communications into Early-Career Science Training

Most of us have been there: our first poster presentation at a conference, our first scientific talk, and the nerves and terror that comes with them. Trainees understand the importance of presenting posters and giving oral presentations to disseminate our information, but listening to presentations by senior scientists doesn’t ready students for their own eventual talks and poster sessions. Most presentation preparation is often limited to the tips received when practicing with your lab mentor or lab members. Science communication training should be implemented in the early stages of scientific training to prepare students for these important career steps.

Writing-intensive courses. In this issue, we encounter fantastic ideas and tools to enhance the written and oral skills of early career scientists. These skills are pivotal for a successful scientific career of communicating to fellow scientists via manuscripts and conference presentations. Grzyb and co-authors highlight the importance of scientific literacy by focusing on writing. By describing a writing-intensive course for microbiology/health science students, the authors provide specific activities to enhance student writing skills and perhaps more importantly, confidence. The course requires students to learn different types of scientific writing, including a press release, a case study, a controversy/position paper, and a grant. These activities, which can easily be introduced into an existing course, help students gain strong scientific writing skills. 

Improved poster presentations. Mayfield and co-authors advocate for more robust student training, with an emphasis on enhanced poster presentation skills. Clearly presenting a scientific poster at a conference is a mandatory skill for all scientists. Although students conducting research in a laboratory are exposed to these types of presentations, they are not usually trained to translate that to the general public. Importantly, some of these presentation skills (i.e. explaining data and controls, answering questions, etc) can be “reused” to present scientific information to the general public. In their practice, the authors successfully implemented collaborative posters to enhance student communication skills with non-scientists. In this activity, students were asked to identify a scientific article, distill its information, and present it to non-scientists as a poster.

Elevator speeches. Not every presentation is a formal scientific lecture, of course, and a variety of training techniques help students develop skills to speak with a wide variety of audiences. In one example, Begley and co-authors approach early career training of scientists in science communication by instituting  elevator speeches, 30 to 90 second research summaries. This speaking style is used across the country to help students in the sciences “pitch” their research to audiences (both scientific and non-scientific). In fact, competitions such as the three minute thesis, which originated at The University of Queensland in Australia, have changed the way younger generations of scientists view and implement science communication, taking pride in clear and concise research statements. This article discusses the use of this tool to help biology students identify the core concepts of their research and refine a short talk about their science tailored to a specific audience. 

Audience tailoring practice. Primary scientific reports are designed for scientific audiences, but as scientists who often receive public tax dollars to fund our research, we have a duty to convey scientific discoveries to the general public. McCartney and co-authors describe an activity in which graduate students and postdocs distill primary literature into lessons for undergraduate students, an audience with foundational science concepts who often need details explained. Learning to contextualize scientific findings for all audiences will facilitate conversations with people of all science training backgrounds. The authors explain their activities with graduate students and postdocs in great detail, which makes for an easy implementation and allows for these early-career scientists to better engage the public in a more effective way throughout their careers. These papers are among several that highlight the importance of written and oral communication in the sciences and make a strong case for multifaceted early career training. 

Applying Best Practices To Engage the Public and Build Community Support for Science

Practice press releases. We scientists not only communicate with the public directly, but also through the media. Speaking with the media presents its own specific challenges. As described in the example of Scott Kelly, misrepresentation can yield dramatic results, potentially damaging general scientific literacy. Garcia describes a training model which allows undergraduate students to communicate their science to news agencies. This, like all other papers in this issue, presents an innovative approach to enhanced communication training while highlighting the miscommunication between scientists, the media, and the general public. The authors present readers with the proper tools to integrating this type of training into scientific education at their institutions.Conversations between scientists and the public are more vital now than ever. Science outreach and community engagement are imperative they allow us to inspire the next generation of scientists and provide students with experiences they couldn’t otherwise access. These outreach activities allow scientists to not only participate with our communities by lending expertise, but also to learn about the needs of our neighbors. Community engagement generates support for scientists and in turn facilitates the interactions between scientists and the general public.

Addressing common misconceptions. As scientists who are members of our surrounding communities, we should further address misconceptions with our fellow citizens directly and outreach efforts are a fantastic way to accomplish this. de Fraga highlights the importance of addressing misconceptions in the sciences. The author uses the common misconception that all microorganisms are associated with disease, and champions the integration of evolutionary biology and ecology as tools to help the general public understand the relatedness of organisms, their ancestry, and the importance of their role within their specific niche. The tools suggested by the author could be used as a practical guide, with slight modifications, for teachers and scientists alike. These suggested activities and approaches can also be easily adapted for the classroom, the laboratory, and during outreach and community engagement efforts.

Driving Infrastructure Change at an Institutional Level

Utilize institutional resources. How can best science communications practices improve university bureaucracy? While universities have great communication and education infrastructures, collaboration between departments and between universities can be hard to coordinate. The new JMBE issue provides examples of scientists using preexisting tools and resources at academic institutions to enhance science communication and become agents of change. These tools and inspiration are provided by multiple publications in this issue, including Bankston and McDowell championing a comprehensive core training program at universities using online resources, Hall and Birch describing their efforts to help faculty take advantage of multiple on-campus writing centers and resources for science courses, and Beason-Abmayr and Wilson arguing for biology course partnerships with institutional communication centers to teach undergraduates how to present material from primary literature.

This issue contains a multitude of information, which can be intimidating to those of us who are just beginning to implement science communication into our programs and teaching as well as to those with more experience. It is important to remember that implementation of these activities and partnerships takes time! It is more effective to start by slowly introducing new, communication-oriented aspects into your programs and practice. Remember, you are not alone. As you can see from this issue, there are many experts who would more than likely be happy to collaborate with you and help guide your future science communication endeavors!

Do you have any favorite science communication techniques or tips you would like to share with our community? Any questions about how to adopt these techniques and concepts? Comment below! Or tweet us @ASMicrobiology and @CandidaScience.

Written by Dr. Jesus Antonio Romo
Jesus Antonio Romo is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Cell and Molecular Biology (Microbiology and Immunology track) at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), where he is finishing his PhD (spring 2018) at UTSA working in a medical mycology laboratory with the fungus Candida albicans studying biofilm formation, drug discovery and development. Jesus’ passions include teaching, outreach, research, and science communication. Jesus is also a 3MT winner at UTSA and a Scientific Teaching Fellow through the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). Jesus is also a regular contributor to "microTalk," a podcast from ASM. Follow Jesus on Twitter @CandidaScience!

Author: Contributor

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