The alarmist approach to conveying science doesn’t really work for me: The earth is warming, glaciers are melting, all the phytoplankton in the ocean are going to die and the entire food web will collapse, so we need to study this now! It’s too Chicken Little. But I’m noticing, in all the literature I read and the grant proposals I’m starting to write, we are pushed to justify why our work is the most crucial, the most underappreciated, the first of its kind. We are trained to convey urgency and importance, sometimes over exaggerating what we know to be true, so we can get the funding or get the story published.
But does that approach work for everyone? Of course not. Scientists have evolved beyond their peer-reviewed publications to need to communicate through multiple platforms: lectures, news media, personal interactions, blogs, etc. and to multiple age ranges: K-grey, non-scientists, policy makers, grant funders. So how do we best do that, hitting the sweet spot of communication?
Everyone is hooked in a different way. When you say the word “Science”, I immediately want to know more, but I’m a scientist. In that respect, it’s been a challenge for me to figure out how to communicate to a wider audience where just saying the word science doesn’t capture the attention of my audience. I am constantly asking my mom and business friends to read over my work. They each give me different opinions. But all of them have told me to stop leading with the scientific justification. During my Master of Advanced Studies program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO), we were taught how to convert scientific work into an engaging “sticky” presentation. We read the book ‘Made to Stick’ and learned that there is a formula for communicating that boils down to one main idea: make it sticky. The goal is obvious, but the method to get there can take many forms—one needs to connect to the audience through surprise, inquiry, or a personal story. We practiced each of these different approaches aimed at connecting to an audience, and our peers let us know what worked and what did not work. We presented scientific papers in the stickiest way possible, sometimes feeling like we were doing the science a disservice by not divulging all the nitty gritty details.
I am now a first-year graduate student in the PhD program at SIO under Dr. Maria Vernet. I lead a citizen science project with the tourism industry in Antarctica called FjordPhyto. Our project encourages passengers to get involved in collecting phytoplankton samples from polar coastal fjords. They learn about the ocean in ways they may never have previously considered and the samples help us understand how the community of phytoplankton changes throughout the season in response to increased levels of glacial meltwater. I have had to communicate in a countless variety of ways. Some come more naturally to me, others I struggle to find the appropriate words and style through which to communicate. Over the course of running this project I have communicated with polar guide staff, trained non-scientists to follow scientific protocols, provided short videos introducing myself and the project to travelers. I even had a chance to board one of the ships to give in-person lectures to the guests. I share stories and results through the project website, blog posts, and social media platforms. I created a crowdfunding campaign to interest donors in supporting our project. I’ve started on the journey of grant writing, and I attend conferences to speak to a wide audience of scientists, educators, and policy-makers about my work. How do I know how to do all this communication and outreach?
I’m winging it.
Nowhere in our PhD program are we required to take courses on communication development. If we want that training, we need to look for opportunities offered outside of our program. The good news is, that training does exist. I’ve attended communication workshops, workshops on how to give a TED talk, and how to write for different non-science audiences. I’ve organized talks on science and career opportunities at classrooms, cafes, and pubs just to put myself out there in front of people. I’ve developed social media platforms and two websites that I post regularly on: www.womanscientist.com, which highlights my science career and showcases inspiring women in field sciences through blogs, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and www.fjordphyto.org, which hosts information on the citizen science project we run in Antarctica.
What I’ve realized, is that the key to communication is to just do it. It is a skill you build over time. Just write. Just blog. Just make a video. Just start somewhere with anything you want to share. It doesn’t always have to be polished when you first start out. Forget perfection! I often reread old posts I’ve written and cringe. But that’s not what matters. What matters is that I’m engaging with people. The key is to share that I’m a personable human, and a scientist. I’m not a sterile being wearing a lab coat, working robotically in the lab.
If you had told me when I was younger that I would teach high school classes, run two websites, speak on ships to tourists about science, write research papers and grant proposals, I would have told you you’ve got the wrong person. I was the shy kid at school. So shy in fact that multiple people wrote in my yearbook: “You seem cool, you should talk more.” What did they mean? What do people talk about?! I observed my peers trying to figure it out. Looking back, I realize this was my first step to learning the art of communication. How do people know what to say and when to say it? I analyzed. Overanalyzed. Just like a scientist. Then one day it hit me. Communication is an art. There is no right way, no one way. People are curious and want to connect with other people. So just share your stories. Be a personable person. Share the work you’re doing and the emotions you have about your ups and downs in science. Storytelling and communication are skills and once you build a good skill base, you can practice the art and transform it into something of your own.
Of course, I still get nervous. I obsess over whether I’ll say the right thing, have the right explanation, give the right answer. But I remind myself that I’m human too. I have the skills, now I’m working on the art and I can communicate in the ways I feel impact a wide audience. Whatever I say, it will be OK. If I want to use the alarmist approach to hook people, or avoid it and just use a personal story, I can do that. I have a lot of fun in my line of work as a young world-traveling oceanographer, and I want others to be curious about the natural world, pursue that curiosity, and be inspired to get involved in science themselves. That is the angle I take when sharing my science.