In AWIS this semester, we’ve talked a lot about self-advocacy and putting yourself out there with confidence. An important aspect of this, in the academic realm, relies on your ability to communicate your science well and enthusiastically. We asked Brooke Wolford, a Ph.D. student in statistical genetics and science writer at Michigan, to share her experiences and tips for science communication.
I was asked to write about how to jump into science communication. My advice is to jump! Head first or arms flailing and with eyes open or shut. Just open your favorite text editor and start writing!
I started writing for science communication during my time in the National Institute of Health’s Postbaccalaureate Intramural research trainee award (IRTA) program. The National Human Genome Research Institute, of which my lab was a part, had a Genome Advance of the Month in which scientists translated recent genetic research into a 5th grade level summarization. At the time I didn’t know what #scicomm was, but I knew I wanted a creative and scientific outlet other than my day to day research. I also knew I liked teaching and communication and I should invest in those skills.
This led to starting a blog on my website, before applying for PhD programs. During one of my interviews a faculty member commented that he had enjoyed reading my blog post, so I knew my time investment had already paid off. I started writing for MiSciWriters as soon as I began at UM, and I eventually applied to write for my professional society’s trainee newsletter, the American Society of Human Genetics Nascent Transcript. Now my main goal is to write a synopsis for a lay audience of any paper I publish. The ultimate goal is to always be able to say: #amwriting.
Like anything in life, you get out of it what you put into it. Science communication is a time investment, but I would argue a personally and professionally valuable one. When you sharpen any #scicomm skills, regardless of the audience, you are honing marketable talents for your future career.
In terms of oral science communication, I get most of these experiences through K-12 educational outreach. I’ve volunteered at museums and currently co-lead a Girls Who Code Club. I have several friends who are teachers and allow me to lead activities with their K-12 classes remotely or when I visit my hometown. Opportunities like Skype A Scientist and MIDNADay provide excellent opportunities for science communication.
UM is bursting at the seams with ways to get involved and almost every organization provides an opportunity to #scicomm. As a student organization leader, I can tell you our limiting reagent is (wo)manpower, and we would love for you to get involved. I hope this list has sparked some idea of how you can start jumping into #scicomm. These are the experiences that led to the following advice, but remember #ymmv (your mileage may vary).
- Dr. Paige Jarreau (@FromTheLabBench) was recently hosted by MiSciWriters to share her research and experience with using social media for science communication. She shared evidence-based reasons why #scicomm helps you, science in general, and the communities we are a part of. Check out her website and Twitter!
- Science Twitter, and the #scicomm community specifically, is a great place to start soaking up wisdom and learning from example.
- Start writing! There are lots of existing outlets and many ways to start your own blog. (May I suggest The Conversation or LifeOmic?) Check if your professional society has #scicomm opportunities.
- Start reading! My goal in 2019 was to read more. I signed up for goodreads and downloaded the Libby app. I challenged myself to read (or listen to) 36 books this year. My N=1, self-reported study tells me that my vocabulary has already grown.
- Lauren Graham talks about the Kitchen Timer method in her memoir, Talking As Fast As I Can. Google it. Try it.
- Have a trusted friend read your first draft. I wrote a piece for a non-science newsletter and was terrified it was horrible. A graduate student colleague and MiSciWriters editor read the piece in her own time and gave me valuable feedback.
- Tell the imposter syndrome voice inside your head that you are, in fact, good enough to write something or explain something. Tell her that even if you aren’t, you will surely get better as you go! As I said before, student orgs would love your help and will help you improve!
- Notice nice metaphors that people use to simplify complex topics. Make note of them somewhere and revisit them as examples before your next #scicomm opportunity.
- Record yourself when you’re giving a presentation. Listen afterwards and gently critique yourself. Are you using too many fillers and verbal tics? Are you pronouncing words clearly? What transitions did you execute well? What explanations will you polish next time?
- Keep your eye out for the MANY science communication and professional development opportunities at UM (e.g., RELATE, NerdNite, and ComSciCon).
Brooke Wolford is a PhD candidate in the Department of Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics (DCMB). When not debugging her own code, you can find her teaching local high schoolers to code with the student org Girls Who Code at UM DCMB. She also enjoys reading, running, and a good NETFLIX binge. Follow her on Twitter @bnwolford.