ComSciCon Arrives on the West Coast: ComSciCon-San Diego

September 19, 2016

This post was authored by Rose Hendricks and the Organizing Committee of ComSciCon-SanDiego 2016.

Set serenely atop a high-rise overlooking the Pacific Ocean, ComSciCon-San Diego included a keynote by scientist and zombie expert Bradley Voytek, four expert panels, two hands-on writing workshops, and two additional professional development workshops.

We opened the workshop with a rousing and rigorous discussion of the ethics of science communication. Panelists included UCSD professors Adena Schachner (Psychology) and Andrea Chiba (Cognitive Science) along with Fleet Science Center CEO Steven Snyder and science journalist Gary Robbins of the San Diego Union Tribune. Panelists discussed how to keep science honest while making stories interesting and how to help lay audiences become critically-thinking consumers of science. An interesting idea arising from the conversation was that science communicators should feel ok with uncertainty--audiences can handle it, and can also sense condescension immediately. The panelists urged scientists to get the know their audience, to start with common ground, and to show that scientists are people too.

Our next panel focused on social media in science communication. Panelists included Dianna Cowern from the Physics Girl YouTube channel; Flip Tanedo, an Assistant Professor of Physics at UC Riverside; and Sanden Totten, senior science reporter for Southern California Public Radio. They discussed whether “clickbait” has to always have a negative connotation, and how to avoid “echo chambers” on social media, where it can be easy to engage solely with like-minded people. They also facilitated a quick Twitter workshop where some attendees posted their first tweets.

For the Write-a-thon, attendees worked on pieces ranging from blog posts and audio or visual projects to grant proposals and paper abstracts. They received feedback from each other and from some of our invited speakers and experts. Some of the most common feedback was to use less jargon and to use storytelling as a tool to engage the reader.

We ended the first day with a keynote by Brad Voytek, UCSD Professor of Cognitive Science and Neuroscience. He told us about his own background in science communication, rising from a nearly-expelled undergraduate at USC to a grad student who edited Wikipedia pages in his spare time, and eventually to the professor, researcher, and author that he is today. Brad showed us how he’s used zombies to connect science to a topic that already fascinates the public, and the incredible impact he’s achieved by doing so. Brad made us laugh, he gave us practical tips, and helped us to think more about the future of science communication.


The second morning opened with a panel on communicating science through audio and visual (AV) media. Our panelists came from a variety of backgrounds, and featured William Bechtel, a Professor of Philosophy at UC San Diego who studies the role figures and diagrams play in scientific explanation and reasoning; Milena Gavala, a scientist-turned-designer who creates data visualizations for complex scientific endeavors; Alyssa Lerner, a lead staff writer and editor for the popular YouTube channel SciShow; and John Reynolds, a Professor at the Salk Institute and co-creator of Rhodopsin, an art installation inspired by neuroscience. The panelists began by discussing how they became involved with their work, and provided insight into unexpected challenges and skills they had to master along the way. They emphasized the importance of testing out material on an audience, since it highlights areas where analogies or simplifications may misrepresent the science or fail to communicate the concept in mind. The panel discussed the role of AV media in successful science careers, such as through journals encouraging visual summaries and supplementary figures. The panelists emphasized that successful communication is often accomplished by telling a story with your work, unfolding events step by step instead of all at once.

We also heard from two UCSD Public Information Officers (PIOs), Sherry Seethaler and Tiffany Fox, who spoke about tailoring science communication to different audiences. During their mini-workshop, they encouraged attendees to use their in-progress write-a-thon pieces as a starting point, but to imagine how they could tailor those pieces for a range of audiences. On a practical note, they taught us about the role of PIOs and how they can help us share our science.

During the two days, attendees and speakers shared completed and in-progress work, stories and opinions, tips and goals. We hope to be back with many new attendees and speakers at ComSciCon-SD 2.0!