Use Your Words

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By Shaila Kotadia (@shpostrapheaila)

Imagine stepping onto the turf at CenturyLink Field, home of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, engulfed by the loudest crowd in the history of sports, and trying to get them to cheer for their arch-rival, the San Francisco 49ers. That was essentially the situation in which science personality Bill Nye found himself earlier this week, when he ventured into the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY for a debate on evolution with Museum president Ken Ham. Beyond the ramifications for evolutionary biology, the debate presented a fascinating example of an effort to communicate science to a non-expert audience.

Many within the scientific community criticized Nye for even participating in the first place, pointing out that he is not an expert on evolution, and that by agreeing to debate Ham he was justifying the position of creationists. Nye, however, relished the debate as an opportunity to communicate about science, pointing out that he hoped to “draw attention to the importance of science education here in the United States.” His performance serves as an insightful guide for how those interested in science communication can perform under the most difficult of circumstances.

Given that the event featured back-and-forth statements without interjections, it was difficult for each participant to react to opposing viewpoints. However, Nye gave a master class in how to keep cool in the face of hostility: rather than reacting negatively, he listened to what the other side had to say and responded in a level-headed manner with confidence and facts that reinforced his position. Nye also made good use of his delivery, throwing in colloquialisms and jokes, and using intonations that engaged the audience. This kept the tone of the debate relaxed and friendly, removing the aggression that sometimes overshadows intellectual components.

Furthermore, Nye was able to use examples from his own life to make his presentation more relatable. Both scientists and non-scientists have loved ones who have been diagnosed with cancer or heart disease or diabetes; making a personal connection is an effective approach to softening the nature of the audience, helping to persuade them to be more objective and eliminating unrecognized biases.

In the end, Nye both won and lost the debate. While his points were made with fervor, he tried to fit a lot of science into minimal time, likely making it difficult for the average viewer to really digest all of the facts. When explaining complex scientific concepts, it is best to keep it simple and to the point, and then fill in details as questions arise. Nye also faced a difficult opponent who refuted his arguments with a “if you can’t see it, then you can’t believe it” attitude and constantly referred back to the Bible when asked questions about unsolved scientific problems. Given such stubbornness, scientists need to recognize when there is difficulty reasoning with the other side, and do their best to lay out their story clearly and concisely.

But from an outreach perspective, Bill Nye was a clear winner. Whether or not creationists were converted to evolutionists or vice-versa is immaterial. Scientists are often told that they must communicate their science to the public. Refusing to engage with different audiences leads to confusion, mis-information and distrust, all of which make our jobs as scientists even more difficult. Take the opportunity to learn from Bill Nye about how you can use your words to help others understand the beauty of science.  If more scientists stood up to promote and defend science, then this debate might not have even been necessary in the first place.

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Worth A Thousand Words

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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Unfortunately, the beauty of science is often confined to the eyes of those who do it, hidden behind mounds of technical data and impermeable prose. Yet visual scientific imagery represents the most direct form of science communication, one that can have a powerful impact on both scientists and non-scientists: consider the famous picture of Earth taken from the surface of the moon, or the intricate complexity of the DNA double helix.

The BioArt competition, launched by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) in conjunction with their centennial in 2012, aims to bring the artistic side of science out into the open. Scientists submit images or videos generated in the laboratory that are both visually magnificent and scientifically significant. To emphasize the theme of science communication, each entry must include a caption that describes the image or video in language relatable to a general audience. An important caveat is that each entry demonstrates research supported by federal funding.

The 2013 winners consisted of ten images and two videos, developed using both classical and state-of-the-art imaging technologies. Included are two entries from ASBMB members.

William Lewis from Emory University School of Medicine won for his image of an amyloid plaque viewed via polarized spectroscopy.

FASEB BioArt Entry From William Lewis, Emory University School of Medicine

Image courtesy of FASEB

Meanwhile, Douglas Cowan and James McCully from Harvard Medical School, were recognized for their fluorescence image depicting the cellular architecture of rat cardiomyocyte cells.

FASEB BioArt Entry from Douglas Cowan and James McCully, Harvard Medical School

Image courtesy of FASEB

The winning works of art have been displayed at several public locations, including the Visitor Center on the National Institutes of Health campus.

NMHM Science cafe poster

They were also highlighted during the Medical Museum Science Café this week in Silver Spring, Maryland, an event sponsored by the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Other opportunities for public display are currently being developed.

So are these images beautiful? See them with your own eyes.

For a full list of winning entries, please visit: http://www.faseb.org/About-FASEB/Scientific-Contests/BioArt/Winners.aspx

Thanks to Shaila Kotadia (@shpostrapheaila) for help writing this post!

National Academies host sci-com workshops

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Science outreach relies on effective communication. On that point, there is widespread agreement. Unfortunately, there is otherwise little consensus on how to best make scientists effective communicators: What is the best model for science communication training? How is “effective” defined? Are scientists even that bad at communicating?

To try and bring some focus this debate, the National Academies of Science in Washington D.C. recently brought science communication experts and thought leaders together for two separate workshops focused on science communication training.

As part of their Public Interfaces of Life Sciences roundtable, the National Academies of Science hosted a workshop titled “Sustainable Infrastructures for Life Science Communication.” Speakers, panelists and audience members discussed existing platforms and programs for science communication that serve as part of the broader scientific infrastructure. Some of the highlighted speakers included Nalini Nadkarni and May R. Berenbaum, both previous winners of the AAAS Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology, as well as Sonny Ramaswamy from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture program. The discussion also featured insight from social scientist researchers, who presented research showing the professional impacts of science communication efforts. Sadly, a snowstorm caused the second day of the workshop to be cancelled, denying participants the chance to gain insight from funding organizations.

IMG_0238Taking a different approach, a second workshop, titled #GradSciComm, focused on identifying and (hopefully) rectifying deficiencies in existing training efforts. Hosted by COMPASS, the workshop grew out of a desire to address the unmet need for science communication training for graduate students, recognizing how this deficiency impacted professional development and career options for STEM trainees. Participants worked to map out potential pathways to help identify science communication core competencies and integrate them into STEM graduate student training, coming up with approaches to overcome significant obstacles like lack of institutional support and poorly defined evaluation metrics.

So after three full days of discussion and deliberation (with one more to come), what were the take-aways? One major outcome from the workshops was the chance for key stakeholders to finally put their heads together and collaborate on collective efforts, rather than continuing to toil in isolation. The discussions and debates that took place will springboard efforts to bring awareness to individual programs, helping to establish a national network that will help to legitimize and standardize science communication training through both bottom-up, grass-roots and institutionalized, top-down approaches.

Participants were also able to tease out several common themes related to the specifics of communicating that came up repeatedly during the workshops. These included: messaging, framing, delivery and context/understanding of the audience. More work is needed to distill these themes into specific criteria that can be used when designing, operating and evaluating current and future training programs.

Finally, the mere existence of these types of workshops demonstrates the growing attention that is being paid to the issue of science communication. The more opportunities that scientists have for practicing and training, the more willing they will be to participate in outreach activities in their local communities. ASBMB is part of that effort: in 2014, we will be launching a comprehensive science communication training program that will help imbue our members with the skills necessary to become expert communicators. We will also be hosting a science communication-themed workshop at EB2014. Stay tuned!

 

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Sustainable Infrastructures for Life Science Communication workshop:

COMPASS #GradSciComm: