Brown Bag Discussion: Science Communication [Event Recap]

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This Hallowe’en Brown Bag presented the topic of Communicating Science for discussion among the 6 panel members and 26 attendees. Sarah S. Chow, Science Communicator and PhD Candidate in Cardiovascular Physiology, acted as our moderator and introduced the panel to the room. Each panelist spent a few minutes describing themselves and the nature of their path into science communication, which are all very diverse (as are their current roles).

Dr. Emily Seo is the Director of the UBC Shared Instrument Facility and a former Associate Editor at Wiley-VCH Publishing group in Germany. After her PhD she moved there to edit journals such as “Sustainable Chemistry”. Her main likes about this position were gaining international experience, reading about cutting edge research and being the first point of review for new scientific ideas. She enjoyed interviewing scientists and hearing their stories. To get into the spooky spirit of Hallowe’en, Sarah asked the panel to think of something that scared them during their career paths; Emily mentioned that some scientists became irate when their articles got rejected, but it didn’t deter her from pursuing this work.

Eve Rickert is the “mastermind” at Talk Science to Me, which she founded this year after realising that she preferred to be her own boss. TSTM provides services such as data visualisation, presentation support and coaching in communication for all types of scientists. The company can also supply photojournalists for field trips. Eve employs people on a freelance basis, with a core of seven staff. She loves the freedom and flexibility afforded by this work, and has a fondness for scientists and what they do. However the financial instability can be a tough price to pay and a little scary!

Dr. Lesley Evans Ogden was in agreement with Eve about the uncertainty of freelance work, as she is now a full-time journalist/writer. She took a roundabout route into science communication, having begun with a degree in Music but ending up in a Biology PhD program at SFU. She went on to do a postdoctoral fellowship in Applied Conservation at UBC, then an earlier interest in communication from high school re-surfaced and to explore this further she took an online course at Media Bistro (based in New York). This course was instructive in journalistic style and how to pitch stories, and served as a useful starting point for Lesley. She began working freelance, researching stories and interviewing scientists for TV news stories. This was in conjunction with the Science Media Centre of Canada, but she found it frustrating to conduct all of the research then hand the story to a TV reporter. Currently freelancing from home, she enjoys the flexibility but ensures that she connects with other writers regularly, to avoid lonely writer syndrome.

Dr. Geraldine Walsh has always had a passion for writing, which has led her to become a scientific writer for Canadian Blood Services, albeit through a traditional academic path as a graduate student and postdoc in platelet biology. She writes manuscripts and figures out the best way to present data generated by colleagues at the Centre for Blood Research at UBC. One of the best aspects of this role is the opportunity to work with many different people across Canada, as well as the varied projects she works on. However she says that due to her involvement at the final stage of a study, alternative approaches to the research sometimes present themselves but it’s too late at that point to change the design.

Eric Jandciu is the coordinator of the SCIE 300 Communicating Science course at UBC. He began a PhD in chemistry but didn’t see it through, as his interests lay not in becoming an academic chemist, but in popular science and the idea of how scientific research is communicated to the public. He decided to become a journalist and freelanced for a while before landing a copy-editor position for the publishers Springer in Germany, an experience similar to Emily’s. At that time the company employed seven native English speakers to edit manuscripts and re-work them into the Springer style. Eric enjoyed the appreciation he received from authors whose writing was improved, resulting in publication of their work. He cautioned that those in-house native speaker editor positions are no longer available, but are outsourced. The course that Eric now runs for UBC Science students gives them the chance to learn how to communicate with other scientific peers, as well as to non-expert audiences; they interview UBC researchers, and use new media tools like podcasts, which sounds like a fun and relevant way to explore #SciComm (that’s a Twitter thing!)

Dr. Candis Callison, Assistant Prof at UBC’s School of Journalism, began her career as a journalist for VanTV on the nightly news, covering stories about technology, as well as working on “First Story”, a First Nations TV show. She moved to San Francisco to work as a reporter/producer for Ziff Davis TV, interviewing big tech personalities like Apple Mac evangelist Guy Kawasaki. Candis next moved east, to Boston to work for a search engine and satisfy her passion for technology, then embarked upon a PhD at MIT in history and anthropology of Science & Technology studies. This qualified her to work towards public engagement with climate change issues at Duke University. Candis may have had the most varied career pathway out of all the panelists, yet is the only one who began in a media career and worked her way into a tenure track academic position!

After our speakers had imparted their stories to the audience, the floor was opened up to questions and discussion. People wanted to know what type of courses they could take to pursue a career in science communication: numerous of these were suggested by the panelists, including the Banff Centre program, the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, and the aforementioned MediaBistro (online courses). There is a rapidly growing interest in and demand for science for public consumption, as demonstrated by the provision of Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) funding for TerreWeb, a graduate program encompassing global change science and communications, and the stipulation for knowledge translation plans to be incorporated into grant applications for funding agencies such as the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR). CIHR also “makes funding available for journalists to undertake projects in print, broadcast and on-line media. The Journalism Awards Program funds awards up to $20,000” annually. Previous recipients of these awards have utilised this funding to prepare in-depth reports on diverse health issues.

Advice was sought by audience members from the panelists – useful tips given included: getting familiar with modern software and technologies such as WordPress (you can start your own UBC blog here); being active in the scientific/technical communities, both in person and online; engaging others in conversation and finding people who are good at what you want to do; tailoring presentations to a specific audience and exploring new innovative ways to present; being open to possibilities other than the traditional old-school paths, and talking leaps of uncertainty.

Eve pointed out that being a scientist who communicates their research and ideas effectively to others is a different ballgame to being a full-time communicator; the latter is a profession in its own right, and can be a long path that requires a lot of experience in order to become successful. Applying to student journals as a freelance editor was suggested by the panel as a way into the editorial profession; Simon Fraser University runs certified programs in Editing, alternatively the Editors’ Association of Canada provides various courses. Lesley recommended sending emails to publishers offering to write or edit books / chapters, and endorsed the book “The Writer’s Market” as a useful resource.

Good luck to all in their #SciComm endeavours!

Written by Jane O’Hara

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