ComSciCon Cornell 2016

cornellHave you ever gotten the sense that your journal articles, press releases, or blog posts are little more effective than shouting into a void? I feel you!

I’ve recently returned from Ithaca, New York, where I attended a ComSciCon conference: a workshop for graduate students about tactics, strategies, and even whole careers in effectively communicating about science to people who aren’t familiar with the field.

Writing has always been important to me, and one of the reasons research is an exciting career to me is because of how much writing it involves. I’ll finally have something worth writing about!

But graduate students often don’t have formal requirements or even available courses about how to reach non-scientists. In my program, we are lucky that one of our first-year courses (called “the Engaged Intellectual”) covered what it means to be a public figure as a scientist, and a few ways of doing so. I (predictably) got excited about the idea of writing for non-scientist audiences, and I started this blog after taking that course! I am so glad I was alerted to the options about public communication of science in my first semester so I can pounce on opportunities to develop the skills and experience I’ll need.

ComSciCon offered talks and panels with practical advice about writing, being interviewed by the press, and even interacting with policy-makers. I loved hearing about all kinds of science that I know nothing about: diseases in cattle, lasers, cancer treatments, and bees that live under ground, to name a few. We each wrote a piece intended for general audiences, got peer feedback, updated our drafts, and then got expert feedback. There were lots of interactive exercises and a chance to give and hear a 60 second “pop talk.” The food was good, too :)

A big takeaway from the conference for me is that I can do this. From where I sit, it feels like I only just now am seeing how much there is to learn and how little I know. Who am I to write as an expert? But ComSciCon helped me see that there’s a lot I can in fact offer, and perhaps I can bring some sense of the wonder and curiosity and creativity involved in science to my science writing. The idea that “I know so little!” is closely followed by, “Let’s go find out!”

So how will ComSciCon change my life?

First, I’m going to start thinking more about policy. I came into it looking for tips and feedback, but I left actually quite excited about policy. I care a lot about politics, but I’ve done very little (other than vote, of course) because I haven’t felt like I could. Knowing that my research can help inform policy and that politicians are actually interested in talking to scientists was really empowering and exciting!

Second, I am going to write more about science. Mostly I’ve been writing about what it’s like to be a graduate student because those are the kinds of blogs I read before heading off to school. But maybe that’s not all I can offer. It would be good practice for me to write up findings from studies I’m reading in Regular Human English, a good opportunity to think about its broader impacts, and perhaps interesting to the general Internet. I learned at the conference that 58% of online adults have a broad interest in science and technology, but it comprises only 2% of news coverage. I’m not going to fill that gap alone, but it’s encouraging to know that there are people who wouldn’t find it boring if they stumbled on to it :)  So look forward to more posts about the kinds of science I am reading and doing!

Third, I am going to talk about the excitement of doing science in this venue and elsewhere. Somehow, I made it all the way through elementary, middle, and high school, plus 5 years of college and a Master’s degree without noticing how exciting science is. As a kid, I definitely got the sense that adults were excited about science, but I could never figure out why. Science class meant memorizing old findings, writing super formal reports, and doing “experiments” which were in no way experimental– the adults in the room knew exactly what would happen. I never noticed that being a scientist would mean asking questions that no one knew the answer to and working out how to find the answer. Science class involved no creativity (except when we got to make a poster!) and actual science feels like all creativity, all the time (except when I have to make a poster 😉 Neither science class nor social studies clued me in to the fact that social science exists and is fascinating. I wish I would have noticed this sometime before my mid-twenties, so I’ll try to pass along my enthusiasm.

You may also like

2 Comments

  1. I’m looking forward to the new posts, especially having you write up findings from studies in regular human English. Sounds like it really was a great conference.

    It’s interesting to me that you didn’t know science was exciting until you were in your 20s and now you love it. As a child, I always thought science was very exciting.

    Then in college I did two summers of research in nuclear physics and discovered it was hours and hours and hours of going over an electronics array looking for the one cable that was malfunctioning. And then after years of incredibly detailed work, we might be able to fill in one more number in a chart of nuclear decay energies.

    I decided years of my life was too high a cost for one number, even if, when combined with other numbers, it helped test new exciting theories. Maybe if I had studies social science it would have been a different story…

    1. Thanks, Sarah! I’ve heard similar stories about the tedium or surprising lack of excitement from graduate students in physical sciences. I wonder whether there isn’t something about physical science that makes that more likely– I will keep percolating on that and looking for more data. :)

      There wasn’t a lot of social science the curriculum of the schools I went to. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t get excited about it as a child, and then didn’t have the opportunity to get let down by it. Maybe we learn physical sciences in big, exciting chunks when we are young, and then the reality of it is very incremental. Social science is incremental, too, but it seems somehow less so when you’re in it. I’m speculating, of course. It’s an interesting question, and it would be great for science education and scientific progress if we could solve it!

      Thanks for the comment and the food for thought!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *