Communicate or bust: Making sense of the message

Assistant Professor Joanne Lomas-Neira, Brown University, runs through a mock television interview during the Alda Center workshop on communicating science, sponsored by Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR.

“We forget what it’s like not to know the information; we’re forgetting that people are not in on the secret with us.”

Rhode Island scientists from a variety of disciplines and at all stages of study and career, from undergraduate to faculty, stepped out of their comfort zone this summer and into a unique opportunity to develop their communication skills.

Sponsored by Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science spent three days in mid-July at the University of Rhode Island Narragansett Bay Campus, providing training sessions — a two-day event for 32 graduate students, postdoctoral candidates and early career faculty members, and a one-day workshop attended by 26 undergraduate students. There also were introductory sessions for those who could not commit to the full-day events.

The challenge that drew the scientists to the workshops was: How to communicate complex information to a broad, non-science audience that doesn’t understand the technical jargon readily digested by their peers.

“Like many scientists, the idea of talking to a large group of lay-people about my science scares me a little,” reflected participant Jess Sevetson, who is pursuing her Ph.D. in neuroscience at Brown University. “Being able to talk about your science to non-experts is so very critical. No one can stay in that ivory tower anymore; we have a responsibility to use our research to inform policymakers and educate the public.”

Even in everyday life, she added, scientists have parents, spouses, siblings, and children: “We ought to be able to explain to them what we do in terms they are comfortable with hearing.”

Improv workshop with the Alda Center
URI Ph.D. students Carrie McDonough, left, and Erin Roberts carry out an improv skit.

The Alda Center trainers used a variety of methods and exercises to prod the scientists into dropping their assumptions, adopting novel approaches to telling their stories, and honing new skills for more effective communication. In both pairs and in groups, participants set aside any unease and jumped into using non-verbal cues and improv methods, embracing the techniques and often generating laughter.

Communications coach James Rae, an instructor for the Alda Center workshops, cautioned the scientists to beware of the curse of knowledge: “We forget what it’s like not to know the information; we’re forgetting that people are not in on the secret with us.”

He said it was important to distill the science message into language people could understand, to use language that was clear and vibrant so people would care about and remember the information. Most importantly, said Rae, know the people in your audience, who they are, what they care about, and consider whether your words will mean anything to them. The improvisational exercises aimed to help the scientists deal with the uncertainty of unanticipated questions and gaining a stronger connection with their audiences.

“Connecting with the people in front of you and saying something they will understand and remember — that’s the goal,” he said.

URI Graduate School of Oceanography Ph.D. student Carrie McDonough is more well versed than most in science communication, writing for the blog, oceanbites, translating complicated research in more easily understood terms for broader audiences. Still, she said, the Alda Center introductory session and workshop provided concrete, practical examples of how to improve her delivery.

Alda Center communicating science workshop activities
URI master’s student Chelsea Duball, right, and Ph.D. student Hilary Ranson, participate in an activity during the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science workshop.

“The workshop environment was extremely supportive and geared toward building scientists’ confidence as well as improving their communication skills,” she noted. “I had never done improv before and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience — it’s very clear to me how it can help you embrace spontaneity and ‘roll with the punches,’ which is something we’re not often encouraged to do as scientists.”

Jess Severson, Brown University Ph.D. student
Jess Sevetson is pursuing her Ph.D. in neuroscience at Brown.

Even though she has attended other science communication training events, McDonough said the opportunity provided by RI EPSCoR offered the chance to learn new skills, including tactics for simplifying her language and making her work relatable. And, she added, she already put the experience to work, using some of the tips for a workshop she ran for undergraduate students on writing blog posts.

URI alum Chelsea Duball, now in her second year of grad school at URI for her master’s in biological and environmental sciences, said the biggest takeaways for her were the concept of knowing her audience and learning that there were multiple ways to connect with people.

“This experience helped me to become more aware as a scientist, realizing that being knowledgeable about a particular subject is only half the battle, while the other half is to actually do something with this knowledge,” she said. “That’s where using effective communication techniques come in handy. Before this experience, I do not feel as though I knew how to do that. Going forward, I aim to integrate this experience and its teachings into my everyday work as both a scientist and an active community member.”

Haoran Miao, URI Ph.D. candidate in environmental and natural resources economics, said the experience gave him more confidence to speak about his work, particularly since English was his second language: “Now I figure out my English is not that bad and I can practice in a scientific way to improve my talk and communication skills.”

In hindsight, Miao noted, he hadn’t realized how full of jargon his communication was when speaking about his research. He said he particularly benefitted from the mock television interview exercise because it amplified both his strengths and weaknesses.

An assistant professor of surgery and researcher at the Alpert School of Medicine at Brown University, Joanne Lomas-Neira has a laboratory in Rhode Island Hospital, where she works closely with emergency and trauma surgeons. She said she signed up for the workshop, recognizing the importance of communicating scientific research to the non-scientist and the need to engage the public in research aiming to improve health care. She said she also knew that she stumbled when trying to distill for others the significance of her work.

“I am the typical, in-my-head researcher,” Lomas-Neira conceded. “I knew I needed an intense intervention to break my avoidance of communicating with non-scientists.”

She said the improv exercises and videotaped mock interview took her far out of her comfort zone, but the instructors were encouraging and consistently gave constructive feedback. What’s more, she said, the experience has had a lasting impact: “Since finishing the workshop, I have been working on my one-minute concise, non-jargon description of my research. It is challenging, but now I understand how to identify what is important to people I’m speaking with and how to engage them by focusing on what their interest might be.”

URI postdoctoral candidate Lindsay Green, right, and graduate student Marissa Viola, share a laugh during a science communication workshop activity.

URI plant biology postdoc Lindsay Green said she most appreciated the hands-on exercises, especially the improvisational work and mock television interviews, which opened her eyes to how poorly scientists often communicate with those outside their world.

“Often times, we think we are speaking with a common language,” she said, “but the jargon of our fields is ingrained in us.”

Since the workshop, Green said, she noticed that she drastically changed the manner in which she talked about her research and she has made a conscientious effort to practice what she learned:

The key takeaway for me was that you have to consciously put yourself into someone else’s shoes and relate to them in order to effectively communicate with them. The strategy of using analogies to describe complex scientific questions is very effective and draws the crowd in; I’ve been trying to work on incorporating those into my regular communication. The experience certainly opened up my eyes and changed my approach to communication.”

Story and photos by Amy Dunkle

Science communication workshop
Rhode Island undergraduate students, above, work through the uncertainties of a mirror image exercise, anticipating the moves of their partners. Below, participants engage in workshop activities throughout the three days at the Bay Campus with the Alda Center.