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.

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Day in the “life”

For my first act as Blogger, I shall recount to you one graduate student day. Namely, today.

Today, I woke up, like any other day, at 7:34. Then, I shut off my alarm and went back to sleep for another 3 hours, because I could. Before you judge, know that I had great reasons for this:

  1. 7:34 am is early
  2. I do what I want!

Just kidding. I stayed up late skyping with my partner in California, and I was working on a project with Californians, so I figured it would work out.

I did NOT figure that the maintenance guy would show up with my apartment a mess and me in my PJs, but you know. Oh, well.

So I made some coffee, fed my cat, darted into my room to change while the nice man got some part from his truck, and sat down to work. (Of course, he fixed the thing in moments, so my switching from comfy pants to jeans was a debatable choice.)

Work today consisted of finishing and submitting a poster to a conference. If all goes as planned and our submission is accepted, I will get to fly to San Jose in March, stand next to a large poster, and talk to scientists and students who walk by and ask questions (presumably fascinated by my ability to cram a papers worth of motivation, methods, and findings on to one page).

From what I hear, this event will be just like a middle school science fair, but with fancier clothes, bigger words, and much(!) more wine.

The goal for presenting a paper at this conference is to get feedback on some work we are doing while it is still in progress so we can frame it differently, do more analysis, or even gather more data before we submit a full paper somewhere.

Our submission consisted of a draft of the poster itself, and a 4-page “extended abstract” about the work we were doing. The extended abstract was very challenging to write: I took an 11-page paper draft and tried to get across what was going on in less than half that length. Also, the abstract itself has an abstract– what? Writing the abstract, I really internalized the value of the Shitty First Draft: getting something complete on paper will be a great foundation (even if it is indeed shitty.)

The poster was also challenging: trying to fit the content of the 4 pages in an even further reduced area, and trying to make as much of it visual as possible. It was somewhat easier for me than the abstract, which was nice. (I wonder what software people use for this– I used Illustrator, but I think there’s got to be a better way.) I learned the value of starting over on a blank sheet, of starting with the easy stuff and of laying things out visually before you try to write about it. So I worked on these things all day, corresponding with my co-authors along the way.

At 7, my cohort was scheduled for our weekly hangout, and I was hosting. So after I had a passable draft of both in my collaborators email boxes, I cleaned like a maniac. Once my apartment was in shape, I read and incorporated most of the feedback I’d gotten, and went out to shop for snacks and wine. I met one of my cohort along the way and she helped me carried the spoils back to my apartment.

She and I chatted for a few hours before we realized it was well after 7. The other two had bailed, for good reasons I’m sure (such things happen when your cohort consists of 5 people :) So my friend and I talked and ate a bunch of snacks– worth it.

After my friend left, I pour myself a glass of wine, finished my final round of edits, and submitted the abstract and poster. I learned that it feels substantially better to file a submission hours before the deadline than minutes. What if I tried days?

Sadly, the world may never know.

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