Reflecting on ComSciCon-Cornell, a regional workshop for upstate New York

July 22, 2015
Reflecting on ComSciCon-Cornell, a regional workshop for upstate New York

The culminating session at the national ComSciCon workshop of 2014 had one goal in mind: appeal to attendees to hold a local version of the workshop back at their home institutions. This goal was necessary, given that at the time approximately 850 STEM graduate students from around the country had applied for a mere 50 slots available at the national workshop. 

This is what inspired us, two graduate student attendees from Cornell University (Kristin Hook and Robert MacDonald), to organize such a workshop. Neither of us had prior experience undertaking such a project, and thankfully, we did not have to venture forth without guidance. Planning began in August 2014 with a tremendous amount of help and effort from both Susi Varvayanis, director of the Cornell Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) Program, and Susanna Kohler, an organizer for the national workshop. Our months of preparation paid off on May 21st and 29th, 2015, when we held the first Upstate New York ComSciCon workshop, ComSciCon-Cornell 2015.

 Participants at ComSciCon-Cornell

To maintain a similar group size and atmosphere to the national conference, we restricted the workshop to 50 attendees. Moreover, to ensure a diverse and broad audience, we decided to open the workshop to several nearby institutions, including Syracuse University, Rochester University, Upstate Medical, SUNY ESF, and Binghamton University, in addition to Cornell University. We received nearly 90 applications from STEM graduate students and post-docs eager to hone their science communication skills.

We modeled ComSciCon-Cornell 2015 after ComSciCon-Cambridge. It was spread over two separate days with an eight-day interim, which served as time for attendees to work on original pieces on a science topic of their choice in a format of their choosing.

 The organizers of ComSciCon-Cornell together with Roald Hoffman.

The first day of panels focused on science storytelling and writing to prime them for producing these pieces. An introductory session covered improvisation, crafting a message, and the elements of basic storytelling. The first panel then addressed how to engage diverse audiences, ranging from the general public to experts in the field, through telling a scientific story. The second panel covered the mechanics of writing and introduced attendees to the lingo of science communication and popular publishing.

The keynote address, delivered by Nobel Prize winner Roald Hoffman, was the final session of the day. Hoffman stressed the importance of the humanities and urged reconciliation between the arts and the sciences; just because a subject has numbers and equations associated with it does not make it any more valuable than others. He illustrated this through a series of stories of how humans of vastly different cultures over the course of history used chemistry before it was known as such, before there was an appreciation for reaction mechanisms, rate laws, and the like found in the general and organic chemistry textbooks of today.

In the eight-day interim of the workshop, attendees wrote their original pieces, submitted them to a small subset of peers, edited each other’s work, and produced a final version to be submitted to an assigned expert reviewer. During the second day of the workshop, attendees met with their expert reviewers in small groups to further edit and discuss their original work. Panels for the second workshop day focused on use of multimedia in science communication and careers in science communication. The final session of the conference was a tutorial on the ins and outs of using Twitter for science communication.

We are seeking organizers for future iterations of ComSciCon-Cornell from the 2015 attendee pool, in the same way we volunteered to lead this event, so that the workshop can continue to serve local graduate students and post-docs.

This conference would not have been possible without our Cornell community sponsors, including the Cornell BEST Program, Graduate School, Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, Department of Biomedical Sciences, Department of Molecular Medicine, and the Office of the Vice Provost for Research. We also thank the ComSciCon National Organizing Committee  

Discussion session at ComSciCon-Cornell