ComSciCon has returned to the Research Triangle! I’m excited to be able to return to the local workshop as an organizer this year, working with a great group of previous ComSciCon participants eager to give more graduate students the experience.’
I wrote about the first ComSciCon-Triangle last year, but briefly, ComSciCon is a science communication workshop organized by graduate students for graduate students. It started as a national workshop held at Harvard each year, but over the last few years, regional versions of the workshop have popped up to give more graduate students the opportunity to learn more about science communication.
The first day of this year’s workshop was yesterday, Saturday, May 14 at the Frontier in Research Triangle Park. The day started with a panel on communicating science through your career. Panelists included Kara Manke, a founding organizer of the national ComSciCon workshop who is now a science writer at Duke, Mark Derewicz, communications manager at the UNC School of Medicine, Corey Davis, an applied climatologist at NC State, and Holly Meninger, the Director of Public Science for the College of Science at NC State. What I loved about this panel is that participants were able to learn that there is no one right way of getting into science communication, as all of the participants had distinct career paths and experiences with science communication. Also of note was how almost all of the career paths of the panelists were not what they had originally intended. Mark got a degree in education and taught for a few years before getting into writing, and Holly’s career took a turn after the emergence of the 17 year cicada put her at the forefront of the topic’s extension and communication efforts.
A few pieces of advice that stuck out from this panel:
- Corey Davis-As a scientist, you can get really pumped about something and lose sight on what the public would be interested in
- Holly Meninger-There’s always room to learn, grow, and learn what your passions are
- Kara Manke-You don’t want to be teaching [in a written piece]. You need to be telling the story.
- Mark Derewicz-It’s easy to love science because it’s a field that is so deep and rich
Abby Olena, a postdoc at Duke Science and Society, and Karl Bates, Director of Research Communications at Duke Office of News and Communications led the second session of the day on writing/editing fundamentals. They started by running through general things to keep in mind when writing for a public audience and ran through examples of phrases that are used very often in academic writing but should be avoided in popular writing. Karl even referred to the word “elucidate” as the “E” word, saying that the word is only used on college campuses and urged us not to use it in science communication efforts. Other tips included using metaphors to connect scientific ideas to something your reader may already know. Additionally, Karl suggested keeping someone specific in mind as your target reader: “You have to write for somebody… I write for an 8th grade girl who is interested in science but is on the cusp of leaving it.” They finished by showing a clip from Avengers in which a scientist explains the powers of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch to Captain America, first using lots of scientific jargon, then boiling it down the point to five words.
Abby and Karl then had the attendees actively participating by challenging them to come up with a 5-word title for the written piece that they will prepare for the second day of the conference. Attendees learned that they have to get the punchline quickly, grabbing readers with a short, catchy title. Then, Abby and Karl asked attendees to write an attention-grabbing tweet for their piece. I think these exercises were really helpful for attendees as they begin to prepare this written piece, but I also think these exercises are helpful for any scientist who would like to communicate their science to a broad audience. They force you to think about what the punchline is, and how to get it across in a simple yet attention-grabbing way.
The second day of the conference will be Saturday, May 21. Attendees will have prepared a piece of writing on a topic of their choice within science, and they will have the opportunity to workshop it with experts that will be joining us. Additionally, we have two more great panels on building your online brand and getting to know science communication outlets in North Carolina. I’m looking forward to seeing how everything goes!