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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Contributing to Your Community through Science

Written by Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer, PhD

Growing up in rural Puerto Rico, I loved to explore and build things. Yet the thought of becoming a scientist never crossed my mind.

Science and scientists seemed foreign and distant. I had never seen a scientist who looked or sounded like me in a book, on TV, or in the newspaper, let alone met one.

This experience is shared by many individuals from underrepresented backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). We rarely see science and scientists presented in a way that is relevant to our reality, cultural values, and communities, in schools or in the media. This lack of representation further marginalizes us from the process of science.

I always knew I wanted to use my scientific training to give back to my community. Initially, I thought I would do this by becoming a research scientist and having my own laboratory. However, as I became involved with science communication and outreach initiatives during graduate school, my vision of how I could use science to make meaningful contributions expanded.

Being able to communicate science in Spanish, my first language, to my community helped me counter the feeling of isolation that sometimes came with being the only Latina in my class and one of the few in my graduate program. It motivated me to persist and complete my PhD in spite of the challenges. So, when I finished graduate school, I put my pipettes away for good and dedicated myself to a career as an outreach scientist and science communicator.

My experiences have inspired me to become a passionate evangelist for building science communications skills, especially among minority scientists. Here I share why these skills are critical in advancing careers, empowering minority scientists, increasing the accessibility of science, and giving back to our communities.

Becoming a Public Voice, Advancing Your Career
Communication is part of a scientist’s everyday life. We give talks, write papers and proposals, communicate with a variety of audiences, and educate others. Thus, to be successful, regardless of field or career path, scientists must learn how to communicate effectively. Unfortunately, this is rarely part of our training.

Science communication can offer us powerful ways to develop the ability to deliver an understandable message both to the public and to our peers. Although communicating science to the public may seem very different from communicating science to your peers, the principles that make you successful at both are the same. That’s why public science communication allows you to develop practical skills that will complement and enhance your technical training.

Science is increasingly interdisciplinary and the ability to communicate more effectively across disciplines fosters collaboration and innovation. Being an effective communicator can make you more competitive in securing funding or finding a job. It will enhance your networking skills and support your mentoring relationships. It will make you a better teacher and mentor for next-generation scientists. Learning to communicate effectively increases the impact of your work in multiple dimensions.

Science communication can empower scientists not just to share their science, but to talk publicly about other relevant issues. For example, becoming more effective communicators can empower minority scientists to speak up about the challenges we face in the STEM fields, to draw attention to the disparities faced by our communities, and contribute our valuable perspectives to the scientific enterprise.

Giving Back
When communicating science, context and culture matter. People will more successfully learn science when it is presented in an authentic, meaningful context that includes personal stories and connections to their culture. In communities where scientific role models and contextualized science information are scarce, minority scientists are in a unique position to make science culturally relevant and to be visible as successful role models.

As a minority scientist, being involved in science communication can empower you to be visible and to turn your visibility into power and resources for underrepresented communities. In my experience, having better communication skills has empowered me to become an outspoken advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity. It has empowered me to take a seat at the table, to become a stronger leader and to be unafraid to share my opinions and perspectives, especially when it comes to issues that affect women and minorities in science.

Practical Advice

The following are some of the basic principles and strategies of effective communication. You can use these in all contexts, whether you are writing an abstract, preparing a talk, or sending a tweet.
  • Know your audience: Are they your peers? Are they a scientist in a different field? Are they a group of high school students visiting your lab? It is key that you know who you are talking to as that will determine your approach and what you will say.
  • Know your goal: Are you trying to teach your students a new concept? Are you trying to convince an agency to fund your research? You must know what you want to accomplish with your message.
  • Know your "so what" and keep it front and center: What is your main idea? What do you want people to remember after they hear your talk or read your article? Why is your issue important?
  • Make people care: Think about ways you can get people to relate to your message. Tell stories. Use cultural references. Use metaphors and analogies. Use images and imagery.
  • Avoid jargon: If you are communicating with someone who is not an expert, be it a scientist from another field or a member of the general public, you should avoid technical language and use words that are easier to understand to explain ideas and concepts. Remember, not using jargon doesn’t mean you are dumbing it down or making your message less scientifically accurate: it means you are making it accessible.
  • Have talking points and stick to them: In addition to identifying the "so what" of your message, you also need to think about your main take-home messages. What are the three things you want people to take away from what you say? What are your conclusions?
  • Beware of the "curse of knowledge": Once you know something, it is impossible for you to imagine not knowing it. Be careful in assuming that people know exactly what you are talking about and not defining or explaining concepts well. This of course will depend on who your audience is, but beware of making this mistake.

Balancing Priorities and Time Management
Although science communication can benefit and advance your scientific career in many ways, there can still be drawbacks. One thing people are often concerned about is the amount of time it can take away from studying, doing research, working, spending time with family and friends, or free time. Based on my experience, the amount of time science communication activities take depends on what you are doing. Are you blogging? Are you going to a middle school for a half-day to talk to students about your science? Are you tweeting?

Two things are very important in getting the most benefit out of communicating science: time management and prioritizing. For example, if you are an undergraduate student who is also doing research, your scholarly activities, not outreach, should be the priority. That is not to say you shouldn’t become involved in outreach, but that outreach should not come before passing your classes or doing your research. Regardless of your career stage, it is important that you identify how science communication can help you advance your career and how it fits with the rest of your responsibilities.

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