Whitaker M. ComSciConNY 2019: Competence, warmth, and knowing your audience. PLOS ECR Community Blog [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Have you ever found yourself listening to an academic lecture peppered with unfamiliar words, feeling a little clueless? God knows I have. I usually cope by sheepishly googling words on my phone, hoping that the speaker doesn’t think I’m on Instagram. Wouldn’t it be nice if instead of feeling like you’re the one at fault, you could throw a big red sign into the air telling the speaker, “Hey! You need to explain that better!”


Just over a week ago, I got to do just that, and it was awesome.


During the first weekend of August, I attended ComSciConNY at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. ComSciCon is a conference series which was started by Harvard graduate students interested in science communication. At their New York-focused iteration of the program, I was able to meet with other early career researchers who are passionate about sharing science with others, and hone my skills during the event.

Ruiz N. ComSciCon at Cornell grows into 6th year. Cornell Engineering News [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract
The first ComSciCon NY, formerly ComSciCon Cornell, was held at Cornell University August 2-3, 2019. The event consisted of a variety of panels on themes such as social media, science policy, podcasts, storytelling, outreach and extension, and citizen science. Panelists were invited speakers from a variety of locations near Ithaca, such as New York City, Washington D.C., Long Island and Cambridge, MA, and attendees traveled from from Buffalo, Syracuse, Binghamton, New York City and Ithaca for the extraordinary opportunity to network, improve science communication skills and learn from experts in careers beyond academia.
Krauss J. An Orchid of Two Hearts (a poem). Plant Love Stories [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's Version
Das M. Cancer Research in a Nutshell. Scientific American Blog [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract
A website called OncoBites offers short, easy-to-understand reports on what’s new in the field
ComSciCon Launches in Canada. Mirage news [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

This past weekend, the first national science communications workshop for graduate students launched in Canada. For two and a half days, fifty graduate students, selected from over 400 applicants, and heralding from twenty-six institutions across Canada, gathered at McMaster University for ComSciConCAN – a fully immersive experience in science communications.

The goal of ComSciConCAN is to help the next generation of leaders in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields develop the skills needed to effectively communicate their research and ideas to peers, policy makers,and the general public. Graduate students were given the opportunity to network with over twenty-five science communication experts, to participate in panel discussions and interactive workshops, and to produce original, creative pieces for publication.

Qaiser F. New tips and tools for “scicomm” courtesy of ComSciConCAN. Signals [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

On July 18th, 50 graduate students (including yours truly!) descended upon McMaster University to attend the first national ComSciConCAN: a three-day science communication event consisting of four panels, six workshops, one keynote and over 25 different experts, with the aim of empowering graduate students  to share their research with broad and diverse audiences. In this post, I’ll be sharing new tips and tools I learned at ComSciConCAN from experts, organizers and attendees alike, which you can apply to your own science communication efforts.

The first Communicating Science workshop (ComSciCon) took place in the U.S. in 2013, where a team of nine graduate students organized a three-day series of expert panels, hands-on workshops, a poster session, pop talks (one minute talks where attendees share their research, and are labelled as awesome or jargon by listeners), and a Write-A-Thon (to prep a piece of science communication). Six years later, ComSciConCAN is the first ever series to take place outside of the U.S., where it features the same unique professional development experience with Canadian experts.

Boodoo C. A Sleep Scientist’s Journey: From Labs to TV to talking science on NPR. Science Talk's A Science Blog [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Science communication is not a field many scientists hold in high regard, since it is not within the common confines of the academic or career industry. Scientists are not encouraged to interact with people outside of their field unless it benefits them. When it comes to science communication, I want to understand what speaking to the public about science entails — even if it may not pertain to their area of expertise — and to develop these skills. I believe communities would be more focused on the development of science if we could show them that science is more fun than frightening. 
Dr. Joe Palca was the perfect person to introduce me to science communication. Joe did not realize what science communication was until long into his career. In 1982, Joe was completing his dissertation at the University of California Santa Cruz on sleep psychology when he saw an advertisement for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship. This fellowship was focused on training scientists to strengthen their connection with journalists. Not enthralled with his research, he knew he did not want to stay in academia and wanted to try something new. Joe decided to give the fellowship a try; it was an opportunity to explore something new that valued his degree without constraining him to a laboratory.
Feehan S. Krishnan attends ComSciCon 2019. Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium News [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Niranjana Krishnan, a Ph.D. candidate in toxicology at Iowa State University, attended ComSciCon 2019 from July 11-13. This annual conference was hosted in San Diego, California, where Krishnan was one of 50 attendees selected from 700 applicants.

“I applied last year, but I did not get through,” Krishnan says. “It’s a very competitive workshop. They only select 50 students from the U.S. and Canada.”

ComSciCon is a series of workshops focused on the communication of complex and technical concepts. Every year, participants build communication skills that scientists and other technical professionals need to express ideas to their peers, experts in other fields and the general public.

At the core of the conference is this belief: Science is for everyone

Laux S. “We’re not always just sharing the facts – we’re sharing enthusiasm for the learning process and science”. McMaster University Daily News [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Headline quote by evolutionary biologist and workshop leader Dan Riskin.

For a lot of people, “She blinded me with science” isn’t just a song from the ‘80s – it’s reality. Science can be…well, complicated to explain.

ComSciConCAN is trying to change that.

The first-ever Canadian offshoot of ComSciCon – short for Communicating Science Conference – was held at McMaster earlier this month, welcoming 50 attendees selected from 400 applicants from across the country. Supported by a variety of organizations and institutions, including  McMaster’s Socrates Project and the faculties of Science and Health Sciences, the event’s workshops, panel discussions and keynote talks focused on teaching scientists to share the results of their research to a broad, diverse audience – not just fellow researchers.

FREDERICK ROBERT. Self-Education in Science Communication. American Scientist [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

My first consciously conducted science experiment was to gauge my parents' reaction to my playing in the mud. They sighed and brushed me off when I played in the dirt but encouraged me with toys and special clothing to play in the water, so I wondered 'How will they react when I combine dirt and water and play in that?'

That kind of self-directed learning is encouraged by certain educational institutions. But whether encouraged by formal schooling, we all start out—in some sense—as self-directed learners. Many of us get muddy in the process. That commonality of childhood experience can limit us as adults, though, by making it too easy to think of educating ourselves at more challenging subjects—such as science communication—as beyond the scope of self-education. Instead, as we grow up, we are increasingly prompted by many social systems to rely on formal experts. In some cases, that's useful because adult mistakes can be far more costly than muddy clothes.

Ad Right

So when a group of self-directed graduate students invited me to serve as an expert reviewer at ComSciCon-Triangle 2019, a workshop about communicating science for graduate students put on by graduate students, I went with the enthusiasm of a muddy imp who had just learned how to make his parents scream.

Sankovitz M. ComSciCon: The Communicating Science Workshop for Graduate Students, by Graduate Students, in ScienceTalk. Portland, Oregon ; 2019. Publisher's Version
Chang J, Sanchez A. Science Communication Workshop Aims to Engage STEM Researchers Across New York. WSKG [Internet]. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

In just over a decade, the United States went from laughing at Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” to fighting over Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts.” Scientific evidence is a necessary resource in this contentious environment, but to utilize that resource, scientists need to build effective communication skills. ComSciCon-Cornell helps scientists do exactly that, bringing together graduate and postdoctoral researchers from across the Central and Western New York region to learn about and engage in scientific communication.

This past July, a team of six Cornell University graduate students and postdoctoral fellows organized ComSciCon-Cornell 2018 for 40 STEM researchers. The two-day event explored modern digital communication, with special focus on storytelling, socially sensitive topics, and public engagement. On both days of the conference, attendees learned from a diverse group of 20 professional communicators and experts through Q&A and interactive sessions. Concurrently, attendees wrote their own popular science articles and actively engaged with panelists and workshop peers alike for feedback.

Sampson DC, Xu CCY. Understanding Local Impacts to Inform Wildlife Conservation. Blog of the Union of Concerned Scientists [Internet]. 2018. Publisher's VersionAbstract

t’s 16:30 in rural Myanmar and my field crew, who had spent the day surveying for elephant dung, are racing our caravan of motorbikes back to the field camp before dusk descends. As the day fades tempering the oppressive heat, elephants emerge from the shade of the forest to begin foraging, sometimes in the sugarcane and rice paddies that are increasingly spreading across the country. Running into one of these giants as they too use the network of dirt roads to travel through the landscape can be fatal, necessitating a strict policy of returning to camp before dark for the safety of the team. While my field season lasts a short three months, this is one of many concessions residents are forced to make or risk their lives encountering an elephant as night falls.

A large chunk of elephant skin

It is unsurprising that most of the remaining endangered charismatic mega fauna are in some of the poorest areas on earth. It is in these areas where wildlands still exist, and the lack of economic development has prevented the boom of industry and infrastructure that could spell the end for remaining mega herbivores and carnivores. It is also in these areas where the people tasked with the burden of living with the species disproportionately bear the brunt of human-wildlife conflict. Though local community members indicate they value elephants for religious and cultural reasons, as well as the important role they play in the ecosystem, increasing human-elephant conflict may lead to a greater acceptance of elephant poaching as a way to prevent crop-raiding and reduce human injury and death from run-ins with their giant neighbors.

Witkowski S. Poster Highlight: ComSciCon trains grad students (& postdocs) on science communication. Neuronline from the Society for Neuroscience [Internet]. 2018. Publisher's VersionAbstract

ComSciCon is an organization by and for Grad Students

Full disclosure? I'm a total science communication nerd.

I’m constantly distracted from research by science twitter (Sorry Ken!) and spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how scientists can help uniform the public about all the great research going on thanks to their tax dollars. All this to say, I was immediately enamored with the ComSciCon organization.

Le BQ. Instant Ramen (The Science of Soy Sauce). Medium [Internet]. 2018. Publisher's VersionAbstract

A monk started to prepare his simple lunch of rice, vegetables, and broth. After meditating for hours, he grew hungry and wanted a delicious meal. He looked inside a wooden vat of fermenting miso made from soy beans and wheat that he had prepared the winter before. All that was left were dredges that had seeped through the bottom. Curious, the monk decided to reach with a wooden spoon. As he raised the utensil to his mouth, the aroma wafted into his nostrils — toasty, caramel, and acidic. He brought the dark liquid to his tongue.

The taste was exquisite.

According to legend, Shinichi Kakushin was a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk who has been credited with introducing soy sauce to Japan in 1254 AD. While both Chinese and Japanese monks had been exchanging recipes for soy sauce across the Sea of Japan since 772 AD, it wasn’t until Kakushin serendipitouslydiscovered a recipe for this particular shoyu soy sauce that the Japanese began their love affair with this universal condiment.

Bentley E. ComSciCon in review. San Diego Science Writers Association Blog [Internet]. 2018. Publisher's VersionAbstract

I sat down the day after ComSciCon-San Diego with ten pages of notes and my head buzzing with possibilities. There are so many directions to take a science communication career, and I just got a head start on whatever path I choose.

ComSciCon is a free science communication conference for graduate students. Since its inception in Boston five years ago, the event has expanded to include satellite conferences like last weekend’s San Diego meeting. Attendees from as far as Northern California and Arizona drove in to join some familiar faces. Shout out to the SANDSWA members among the organizers, attendees and panelists.

Gibson C. Researchers, locals testing how industry could impact Fort Good Hope's water. CBC News [Internet]. 2018. Publisher's VersionAbstract

The morning starts like any other for the local environmental monitors in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T. — laid out across the storage room floor are boxes of clear glass bottles, GPS units, batteries, and an array of equipment that at first glance looks like something from a sci-fi movie.

Environmental monitors from Fort Good Hope are joined by an Environment and Climate Change Canada researcher to do water sampling from local wetlands in the Ts'ude niline Tu'eyeta (Ramparts River and Wetland) area.

    Wright TA. How to Create a Science Policy Group: A checklist for graduate students. Scientific American - Observations [Internet]. 2018. Publisher's VersionAbstract

    Most of the graduate students I work with are spending the bulk of their time in lab, teaching or preparing for required departmental examinations—ultimately, preparing for future careers. During our undergraduate training and even at the graduate level, most of us are led to believe our career options are limited to academia, industry, government or alternative careers. This narrows the areas of science we are exposed to—including science policy.

    The cornerstones of science policy include, but are not limited to: science advocacy, scientific communication and science-based policymaking and legislating. As most of us matriculate through our graduate school careers, we begin to notice the need for increased funding in science, a disconnection between science and the public, and a host of other issues—issues we can fix.

    Volpatti L. Two Communication Fellows report back from ComSciCon 2018. MIT Communication Lab news [Internet]. 2018. Publisher's VersionAbstract
    “Science is chocolate. Science is not broccoli. We don’t need to trick people into liking it,” insists Liz Neeley, Executive Director of The Story Collider and keynote speaker for ComSciCon 2018. Over two jam-packed days in downtown Boston, graduate students from all walks of science converged for a workshop on communicating science to answer the question: how can we effectively use communication to maximize the impact of our science on our intended audience? Among them were two MIT Communication Lab Fellows: Josh Peters and I. Josh is a first-year Communication Lab Fellow in Biological Engineering who was introduced to the conference through fellow writers in the Massive Science Consortium, a community of STEM researchers supported by the science publication Massive. As a second-year Comm Fellow in Chemical Engineering, I applied to the conference in order to explore novel topics in science communication and bring them back to the MIT Comm Labs – while also sharing the Comm Lab model with others.
    MacKenzie CMD. On Story Telling. PLOS Ecology Community blog [Internet]. 2018. Publisher's VersionAbstract
    At ESA 2018, there will be a ComSciCon workshop: “Story-Tell Your Science with ComSciCon: The Communicating Science Workshop for Graduate Students.” I attended the incredibly rewarding three-dayComSciCon in Boston in 2015. The ESA ComSciCon workshop agenda includes a write-a-thon session “where attendees can receive expert feedback on a piece of writing from a media of their choosing, from experienced academic communicators.” The write-a-thon was one of my favorite experiences at ComSciCon: I workshopped a podcast script — though I had absolutely no podcast production experience — and I basically abandoned the idea at the end of the workshop in June 2015, tucking my notes into a folder, filing it away while I went back to fieldwork and dissertation-writing. Then, last summer, my postdoc advisor suggested my name to the organizers of TEDx Piscataqua River. I had about a week to create a pitch for a TEDx talk — while I was in the middle of preparing for ESA 2017, packing to move to Maine, and submitting my final dissertation edits. But, I had that old ComSciCon folder. I dusted off the podcast script, re-wrote it as a talk pitch, and sent it to TEDx Piscataqua River. That talk — “Botanizing with my 19th century girlfriend” — is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.**