There are many skills that a grad student should take away from Graduate School. For those of you in STEM fields (science, engineering, technology, and math) learning to communicate your science to different audiences is critical. You may not believe that now, but consider the poor state of the public’s science understanding.
We do the public a disservice by not assisting them to understand what it is we do. The more they understand, the more they are able to make informed decisions. Communication is a key professional skill and no longer considered a “soft skill.” Every grad student should have communication as a professional skill.
There was a time when those of us in science could be certain that all we had to do was share the facts of our scientific knowledge. At that time, the public valued the knowledge and scientists were generally trusted.
Currently, the public acceptance and understanding of what it is we do and why, or the impact of what we do, can and does influence governmental policy and regulation, whether it is at the local or federal level. That’s why science communication is more important today than ever before.
If we as scientists communicate more effectively, we all benefit and science thrives. The public is looking for us to be able to communicate our discoveries and the resulting impact, or as I like to say, the “so what factor”.
The public is asking “What does it mean for me? What difference does it make?” Why is effective science communication important for you? It affects your ability to have a competitive edge when on the job market or when you are seeking career advancement.
Ultimately, our ability to communicate science effectively enables more informed decision-making at all levels; we all benefit.
However, today, many voices compete in the marketplace of public opinion. Anyone with a laptop, a video camera and a compelling message can share their views on scientific matters that may or may not be rooted in science or even in truth. In fact, today science doesn’t always have the upper hand in matters of critical importance to our country and our world.
As researchers, we often start explaining from the perspective of our own understanding, and sometimes the vast knowledge we have acquired in our field can be an obstacle to clearly communicating our research. It’s challenging for many of us in scientific fields to dial it back to the thousand-foot view so we can communicate with a general audience.
Scientific jargon gets in the way of communicating science. All fields have their own unique jargon, and when we communicate with our peers, they understand our message. But outside our sphere of our discipline, jargon only confuses people – It excludes others from the circle of understanding. Look carefully at the jargon you use, and find terms that explain the principles you want to share. For example, practice explaining your work to a non-scientist relative, what would you say?
Think about why you got interested in your research area in the first place – maybe you wanted to save the environment or provide a safe source of drinking water for people around the world. How did you get from that “Big Idea” to the lab or the field in which you work now? What inspired you and what does your research offer to address the world’s problems. Think about the “so what?” of what you do.
People love stories, and often they will remember a story about your research better than the theories, data and results. Think of a “hook” to catch their attention and reel them in. Engage them. Peek their curiosity.
You may have heard the expression, “people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Share your passion for your work, and help your audience to understand what it means to them. What challenges are you trying to address? How might your work improve lives?
Of course, there are many ways to communicate your science. A colorful image can look like a piece of art, but the story behind the image can capture the imagination of your audience.
Social media offers opportunities to share a nugget of scientific wisdom. Each media platform offers unique ways to share your science and connect to others in your field.
Whatever your passion, think of ways that you can share it with others. In addition, make it a goal of your graduate education to become a skilled science communicator.
How can I gain experience in communicating science? There is the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University that offers programs for masters and PhD students. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the New York Academy of Science’s Science and the City program offer opportunities for scientists to engage. There are “science cafes” in many cities, or science museums where you can hone your skill. Finally, don’t forget the 3MT TM competition that many graduate schools are holding. Many schools are collaborating with faculty from communication disciplines and offering summer workshops and training. It’s up to you!