Allf B. Don’t Trust Scientists? Then Help Collect the Data. Scientific American Blog Network. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

In 2015 I was on the verge of publishing my first scientific journal article. The culmination of hundreds of hours spent filming defensive behavior in snakes seemed to be paying off in a big way: an exciting new conclusion about how the rattlesnake's namesake rattle evolved. But there was a problem.

While almost every data point I collected about viper behavior supported our hypothesis—that snakes more closely related to rattlesnakes shake their tails more quickly—one critical species bucked the trend: the cottonmouth. These large venomous snakes from the Southeastern U.S. shook their tails a measly 10 or 15 times per second—half as quickly as most other rattlesnake cousins.

Staring at my computer screen after analyzing the videos, I realized two things. One, cottonmouths were going to complicate an otherwise straightforward story that would reduce the strength of my conclusions, meaning I might not get my paper published in a top-tier journal. And two, since I was the only person in my lab analyzing this data, it was completely within my power to fudge the numbers.

Young N. My Top Eight Takeaways From ComSciCon-AIP. MSU SciComm. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract
I recently attended ComSciCon-AIP, a science communication conference for graduate students run by graduate students at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland. Over the course of two days, I along with over fifty other students from around the country discussed storytelling, science communication, science policy, engaging with the media, and diversity and inclusion efforts. While there is too much to share in a single article, I’ve created a list of my top eight takeaways from the conference.
Deibert E. Science graduate students hone communication skills at inaugural ComSciConCAN conference. The Varsity. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

U of T students, faculty represented at Canada’s first national science communication conference for graduate students



Science communicators from universities across Canada sharpened their skills at ComSciConCAN, the country’s first national science communication conference for graduate students, held from July 18 to 20 at McMaster University.

The two-and-a-half-day event drew inspiration from the US-based ComSciCon workshop series on science communication, which was first held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2013.

ComSciCon has since expanded to include flagship workshops across the US, but ComSciConCAN marks the first time the conference has been hosted in a different country.

The inaugural Canadian conference featured four panel discussions, six hands-on workshops, and over 25 experts from a diverse range of science communication careers.

In attendance were 50 graduate students from 26 different institutions across Canada, who were selected out of a pool of over 400 applicants from a wide array of scientific backgrounds.


Schmehl M. Which Weighs More, a Pound of Stone or a Pound of Styrofoam?. Scientific American Observations Blog. 2019. Publisher's VersionAbstract

It’s not a trick question: your brain answers differently depending on whether they’re part of the same object or not.



For more than a century, scientists thought they knew the answer to a curious question: why does 10 pounds of a low-density substance such as Styrofoam feel heavier than 10 pounds of stone? It isn’t heavier, of course, but repeated experiments have shown that it feels that way.

Now psychologists say their initial explanation may have been incomplete, and the new explanation could have far-reaching consequences, including for the way Netflix designs the algorithms that recommend movies to its customers.

Scientists have known for decades that when asked to lift two objects that seem like they should have different weights but are actually equally heavy, people will say the lighter-looking one feels heavier. Experts believed this illusion, called the material-weight illusion, occurs when the brain’s expectations about weight are contradicted: Throughout life we learn through experience that some materials are heavy and others are light. Over time we become skilled at guessing an object’s weight from its appearance alone.

But new evidence suggests that the brain bases some guesses on how weight is distributed across an object. In a recent study scientists looked at how people perceived the weight of a block made of two materials. A team led by Roland Fleming, a psychologist at the University of Giessen, created blocks composed of two halves that appeared to be made of materials with different densities and thus could be expected to have different weights: stone, wood or Styrofoam. The team asked people to lift a block made of two of these materials (such as stone paired with Styrofoam) and rate the relative weight of each side of the block.


Whitaker M. ComSciConNY 2019: Competence, warmth, and knowing your audience. PLOS ECR Community Blog. 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. 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. 2019. Publisher's Version
Das M. Cancer Research in a Nutshell. Scientific American Blog. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.