ComSciCon workshops started a few years ago at Harvard University, bringing together graduate students with a shared interest in science communication and outreach. The workshops, which have recently expanded to new locations, provide opportunities for attendees to hear from speakers involved in various aspects of communication and outreach, develop their own communication skills, and ultimately, workshop a popular science article of their own intended for a broad audience. On Saturday, I attended the first of two workshops that comprise the inaugural ComSciCon-Triangle. It was absolutely fantastic.
The first workshop was primarily made up of talks from our keynote speaker, Joe Palca, and science writers on panels focusing on how to engage audiences and the mechanics of writing for a broad audience. These panels included Scott Huler (journalist and author), Abby Olena (Duke Science and Society post-doc), Karyn Traphagen (co-founder and former Executive Director of ScienceOnline), and Sara Peach (Instructor at UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication). The speakers came from varied backgrounds/career paths, but all were very dynamic, personable, and enthusiastic about scientific communication, making it very easy for listeners to in turn get excited about what they were hearing. I know I got pretty stoked to hear Abby Olena say that her liberal arts undergraduate education colored her desire to teach and engage when she started graduate school. It was almost as if I was listening to myself; I think I may have spoken the exact same words when asked about my own professional interests! Even though Abby’s professional interests took her in a direction more towards science communication, I found her story and background very relatable.
As I mentioned, each of the speakers was incredibly dynamic and had many pearls of wisdom to share with all of the attendees. A few of my favorites:
• Bad powerpoint presentations give you so much time to think about other things.
• The more a job is like being a TV detective, the better the job is.
• When people say that your writing sounds like your talking, you’re on the right track.
• Writer’s block is just another way of saying that you need to check facebook again.
• You can tell a story really accurately without all the details.
Now, the other major part of Saturday’s workshop was the “pop talks.” We had been emailed a heads up that all participants would be required to get up in front of everyone and give a minute pitch about their research without using any field-specific jargon. I would be lying if I said I was not slightly terrified about this part of the day. Only one minute?! How was I supposed to do that when I am most definitely a rambler by nature. To make matters worse, the first pop talk session started with everyone in the audience getting bright signs with the words “jargon” and “awesome!” to hold up as a means of giving feedback to each pop talker and the organizer put a minute timer on the projector that ended in an animated bomb exploding. Horrifying, I know. This experience, however, turned out to be wonderful. It was great to hear how folks presented their work when they were forced to be concise and use simple terms. When it was my turn, I felt more encouraged and supported than anything else. Listeners were nodding along, smiling, and generously holding up the “awesome!” cards to each minute spiel. In the end, I think it was a great exercise that I would challenge anyone to do for themselves.
A final note I want to discuss before I run off to finish up my popular science article for our Thursday deadline (which I will discuss in my blog post after our second workshop) is the different motivations of the attendees from the conference. I spoke with a handful of my fellow attendees, and I was pretty surprised by the variety of motives in attending a conference like ComSciCon. Some students were nearing the end of their graduate education and decided that communication was something that they wanted to pursue professionally instead of research; some were unsure what they wanted to pursue after their degrees and wanted to keep as many options open as possible; others, like myself, intend to continue to pursue research professionally but want to incorporate communication and outreach into their research program. Everyone was really open about their perspectives and experiences, and this further developed the encouraging atmosphere of the conference as a whole. I am really looking forward to seeing what our second workshop holds!