Graduate students help organize premier conference on scientific communication

July 13, 2013
Graduate students help organize premier conference on scientific communication

A group of graduate students, including six from the Harvard Department of Astronomy, developed and organized Communicating Science 2013, or “ComSciCon 2013”, a first-of-its kind workshop on science communication specifically for grad students in the sciences and engineering. ComSciCon brought together graduate students from across the country and from a wide range of scientific disciplines to the Microsoft NERD center in Cambridge on June 13-15. These 50 attendees were selected from a pool of 730 applicants based on their enthusiasm for and achievements in communicating science.

Graduate students learn an array of valuable skills during their time in graduate school. Coursework provides background knowledge and context, and supervised research projects develop scientific insight and independent thinking. However, there is one ingredient that is missing from most graduate curricula and which is key to developing a successful science career: training in effective communication. No matter how groundbreaking a scientific discovery might be its importance may never be appreciated if it is not effectively communicated with other scientists and with the public.  It was to address this need that ComSciCon was first conceived.

The goal of ComSciCon – providing training in science communication – was implemented in three ways: panel discussions with invited expert communicators, a scientific writing workshop, and direct and informal interaction with peers and experts. The conference also featured a poster session in which attendees’ own communication efforts were featured and shared. All students that participated also were given the challenge of standing up in front of their peers and giving a quick one-minute “pop talk” summary about their research. The audience had orange “jargon” cards to discourage the use of technical terms and green “awesome” cards to provide positive feedback.

The panel discussion component consisted of seven panels each featuring three science communication experts. Each panel focused on an important element of communication, such as science journalism, writing for a cause, or communicating using multimedia and the web. These distinguished guests included Harvard professor Rob Lue, science fiction writer and MIT professor Joe Haldeman, and American Astronomical Society press secretary (and Harvard alumnus) Rick Fienberg.

The practical element of ComSciCon – the writing workshop – served an important role in helping attendees apply what they were learning and receive direct feedback on their own writing. On the evening of Thursday June 13, the students sat down and drafted two page pieces on a scientific topic of their choosing. The next morning, attendees were grouped for peer review, and then had more time to revise their work. Finally, the invited panelists met with writers and provided professional-level feedback. Many of these pieces were then submitted for publication in nationally recognized media. An upcoming issue of Natural History Magazine will featured a piece devoted to ComSciCon, including a workshop description and four articles written by attendees.

Perhaps the most important and enduring outcome of ComSciCon will be the interactions it helped foster. When 50 motivated graduate students and 20 expert communicators gather together for three days, the result is much greater than can be measured in units of knowledge or numbers of published articles. New connections and collaborations were forged, potentially leading to future communication efforts far beyond the nominal scope of the workshop. For example, attendees founded new websites designed to make modern scientific research understandable and accessible to undergraduates, including GeoSciBites for the geological sciences. The organizers are also conducting a 6-month study of science communication activities and perceptions among graduate students using ComSciCon attendees.

It is clear from the large applicant pool, the incredible success of the workshop, and the follow-up activities that the interest in science communication training for graduate students is greater now than ever before. The six of us that at Harvard that helped plan ComSciCon very much hope that workshops such as this will become more and more prevalent in the near future. And yes, ComSciCon 2014 is already in the planning stages.