This is a guest post by ComSciCon-Michigan 2018 attendee Kristina Lenn, a Chemistry PhD student at the University of Michigan.
The weekend of August 26th, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend ComSciCon-MI, an interactive science communications conference designed to help scientists engage a range of target audiences about their scientific interests. This eye-opening event, which hosted graduate students and post-docs from different Michigan universities and featured a range of science communication specialists, discussed key issues that all scientists face such as presenting with confidence and passion, finding the underlying principle one is trying to convey, and building a captivating story around the science itself.
The conference began with a series of “Pop Talks” for which each student was given only sixty seconds to introduce his or her research with as little scientific jargon as possible. If the speaker was using terms the audience did not understand, the members of the audience would hold up a card that said, “Jargon”; otherwise, they would hold up the flip side of the card that said, “Awesome.” The goal was to have as many “Awesome” cards held up as possible.
As nerve wracking as the exercise was, it was extremely helpful for learning how to draw in the audience and convey the principles of one’s project in a straightforward manner. I learned a great deal from watching the other students’ pop talks, especially regarding how to present oneself. While I’m sure all of us were nervous to an extent, these students were naturals at this exercise. They were funny, relaxed, and confident, and listening to them made me curious and excited about topics I had never considered.
Side note: A key topic of some of the speakers was bananas and has since become a running joke. Be sure to follow the #Bananageddon hashtag on Twitter!
Different workshops were also offered that covered topics such as identifying one’s audience, creating science graphics, and considering how one presents information. My favorite was the improv workshop led by Dr. Brian Zikmund-Fisher, a professor at the University of Michigan in the School of Public Health. Through a series of creative, not to mention entertaining, exercises, he addressed some of the most important skills a scientist can have when giving a presentation, especially during the “unscripted” part such as a Q&A session.
Through the “Half-Life Talk,” we each practiced discussing the main topics of our research in sixty seconds. We tried again but with only thirty seconds and then eventually fifteen. The “Color Game” was utilized to show us when certain details require extra information, or to be “colored in.” These games helped us pare down extraneous information and discover the message we really want to convey to our audience while also determining what details need to be explained further, or “colored in.”
Participating in these exercises definitely pushed us out of our comfort zones. One of the main hurdles graduate students face when giving a presentation is having confidence, which many times manifests as imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is a persistent feeling of ineptitude, as if one is a fraud and cannot be trusted to be considered an authority in one’s own field. Personally, I am always nervous about giving a presentation in front of my peers and superiors because I always assume they’ll know more about my research than I do, and therefore nothing I say will have any merit or leave an impact.
As difficult as these fears are to overcome, Dr. Zikmund-Fisher says that we need to trust our expertise in that moment. Yes, there will be people in the audience who are experts on some areas of our research; and while we need to be open to glean what we can from those experts, we need to balance that with faith in ourselves as experts who have authority over our projects and interests. Not only does this apply to presenting for a technical audience, but also it applies to writing and engaging the general public in scientific discussions.
The conference hosted a series of panels on holding those discussions in science policy, SciComm careers, and diverse audiences. A major takeaway from each panel discussion was that each scientist is responsible for relating to his or her audience and to be sensitive to other’s mistrust or disbelief of science. We are incapable of changing people’s minds; only they have the ability to change their thoughts and opinions and beliefs. However, we can try to affect change by presenting the facts using relatability and sensitivity.
Hot topics such as vaccines, evolution, climate change, women’s reproductive rights, and the shape of the earth are highly divisive issues, and many people’s opinions and beliefs on these topics stem from emotional and/or religious responses. But that is understandable.
A chronically ill person who has tried multiple drugs and therapies with no success will understandably be mistrustful of Western medicine. A parent whose child experienced ill health after receiving a vaccine will worry about future vaccines and be reticent to put his or her child through that again, in spite of the fact that the vaccine may not have had anything to do with it. Who can fault a parent for wanting to protect his or her child? A person of faith will usually put his or her beliefs above what anyone else says, which is an admirable quality. Regardless of who is right or wrong, no one should be slighted for doing what he or she believes to be right.
Still, it is worrisome to hear about the public’s beliefs regarding science, especially considering they are influencing government policy. With fewer people choosing to vaccinate their children, people are starting to wonder if the government should follow Australia’s example of enforcing legislation that requires parents to pay fines for not vaccinating their children. Many equate abortion with murder and believe the fetus should have rights; however, when these points are raised, the mother’s rights and health are rarely discussed. Not all states in the U.S. will allow private insurance companies to cover abortions, in spite of the fact that it is a medical procedure that can save the mother’s life.
These are the challenges many scientists face. Presenting the facts isn’t enough; in fact, sometimes it has no effect at all. Although viewing an issue through a technical lens is important in order to determine what are the important facts, drawing from our humanity is equally important.
In addition to being encouraged to find our confidence and our relatability, we were also inspired to find our uniqueness. The keynote speaker, Dr. Raychelle Burks of St. Edward’s University in Austin (known as @DrRubidium on Twitter), addressed finding our passions and building a creative outlet for communicating those interests with the public. A former crime lab chemist, Dr. Burks is now a professor of chemistry and has been on the Science Channel’s “Outrageous Acts of Science.” She has found a way to combine her love of science with zombies, superheroes, and other sci-fi themes by starting GeekGirlCon and writing for her blog.
Towards the end of her address, Dr. Burks had us break into groups to create our own fandom which we would use to discuss science topics in a fun and educating way. One group came up with the idea of hosting a science bar night where they could sample different brews and wines while discussing the fermentation process and how different brews are made. I and my fellow Harry Potter fans thought of creating a blog based on explaining the science behind the “magic” used in the movies such as the mandrakes used by Professor Sprout and the time turner used by Hermione.
We were able to use these ideas and skills and apply them to our own writing, which closed the conference for the weekend. All of us were split into groups and we were each required to write an article on any scientific topic. Before the conference, we took turns reviewing everyone else’s writing, and at the end we worked with experts in the field who provided feedback on engaging our respective audiences and structuring a story in a clear and concise manner.
Over the course of two days, I met like-minded scientists and authors, pushed myself out of my comfort zone, and walked away inspired to further pursue my writing and create new outlets for education. There are so many things I want to do, and hopefully I will have the opportunity to pursue them all. For now, I’ll keep writing and brainstorming...and thinking about magic.
A special thank you to the organizing committee: Sarah Kearns, Stephanie Hamilton, Jessica Chen, Jessica Cote, Gizem Kurt, Amanda Koenig, Attabey Rodriguez, and Andrew McAllister; the panelists: Dr. Laura McCabe, Sara Pack, Dr. Jon Miller, Julie Halpert, Dr. Nick Wigginton, Kara Gavin, Alicia Comer, Dr. Monica Dus, and Dr. John Besley; the workshop leaders: Dr. Elyse Aurbach, Dr. Brian Zikmund-Fisher, Dr. Jimmy Brancho, Michigan DNA Day, and Dr. Rachel Pricer; my peer editors Sara Ayoub and Shawna Rowe; and my expert editor Dr. Jimmy Brancho.