Karna Gowda inspires at Communicating Science Workshop (ComSciCon)

As an attendee of the inaugural Communicating Science Workshop (ComSciCon) last year, I met graduate students, academic faculty, and working professionals from across the country who are passionate about changing how science is perceived by the public, as well as about changing the nature of scientific research to be more inclusive of diverse viewpoints and responsive to society's needs. I was inspired to put forth a greater effort to communicate science by the people I met and the connections I made, so this year I became involved with organizing the second annual Communicating Science Workshop (ComSciCon14, June 11-15) and am thrilled to report its resounding success.

ComSciCon was first conceived as a writing tutorial for astronomy graduate students, but quickly expanded into a larger-scope workshop for graduate students of all scientific fields after receiving significant and generous support from Harvard University and Microsoft Research. The inaugural program, held last year in Cambridge, MA, emphasized written communication through a popular science writing workshop and guest panels about careers in writing. We decided this year to give more time to other forms of communication, as well as to include practical activities to help graduate students communicate verbally. To this end, we began the workshop with a very lighthearted and insightful introduction to improvisation led by Dr. Raquell Holmes of Improvscience, in which attendees learned that listening carefully and being constructive is the key to successful improv, just as it is for good collaborative work. From there the workshop continued over three days with Q&A panels featuring guest experts, career social events, a writing tutorial, and a lesson on using Twitter. Among these was a panel I helped to organize on communicating using multimedia, which featured Harvard astrophysicist and science visualization expert Alyssa Goodman, University of Oklahoma chemist and science consultant for Breaking Bad Donna Nelson, artist and television host Jeff Lieberman, and Radiolab producer and writer Soren Wheeler. Organizing and moderating this panel was a special joy for me, since I am such a big fan of Radiolab and of science visualization, as well as of exploring the emotional and practical connections between science and art.

A theme that appeared often in the workshop, first mentioned by Professor of Communication Dietram Scheufele and later emphasized by Professor of Chemistry and former NSF Assistant Director Bassam Shakhashiri during his keynote address, was that we as researchers need to make the public care about science before we help them understand it. Dietram's point, supported by his research conducted on behalf of the National Academies of Science, was that science communicators often operate with an "if you build it, they will come" attitude to public engagement. Museums and extracurricular educational activities, for example, often only affect those with a pre-existing interest in science, leaving the vast majority of the public without a reason to care about science in the first place. Bassam suggested that we familiarize ourselves with reports that organizinations like the NSF release on the current state of science in society (e.g. NSF Science & Engineering Indicators) in order to make informed efforts to communicate science. These messages were certainly eye-opening, and they made us reflect on how we should communicate science and why it is so important.

Because of the limited workshop funding, ComSciCon was able to only accept 50 out of the more than 850 applications received this year (the ratio shrunk from 50/700 last year). After accepting so few applicants in the face of so much interest, it was an important step to realize that more than being a science communication workshop, ComSciCon is about science leadership. In order to respond to the significant interest we saw during the application process, we decided to provide planning materials and to give a tutorial on how to run a science communication workshop. A few of the Chicago-area attendees and I are already forming plans to hold a ComSciCon Chicago workshop for the numerous interested individuals in the city, and our hope is that attendees from elsewhere are planning the same for their local institutions.

The essence of the workshop was summed up for me in a funny moment on the Saturday the 14th, when Bassam Shakhashiri pointed to a clock on the wall of the MIT Museum gift shop. The clock featured the symbols of first twelve elements in place of numbers, all surrounding his signature in bold cursive. He had designed the clock in 1984, and it has sold in museum gift shops around the world since then. Throughout the workshop, Bassam and others showed us that there are many ways, small and large, to reconnect the work we do to the world around us. Moreover, we learned that doing so can invigorate the same emotions that got us interested in science to begin with. Despite the long hours that both attendees and organizers put into this workshop, I sense that everyone left feeling uncommonly energized, with a mandate to change the way they approach their work.

 

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