Though well-equipped with scientific training and expertise, scientists need to be aware of the resources available to help them share their work with a public audience, learns Aliyah Weinstein.
Recently, more and more emphasis has been put on scientists to communicate their research to public audiences. National scientific organizations such as the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the American Society for Cell Biology encourage their members to reach beyond the bench, and many blogs help scientists describe their research to wider audiences. At the University of Pittsburgh, where I’m working on my PhD, graduate student and postdoc organizations on campus share their excitement about science with the public through partnerships with local museums and school districts.
Unfortunately, while many scientists are interested in sharing their work with scientists in other fields or with lay audiences, these opportunities are not always supported by universities or PIs. To showcase the importance of scientists sharing science, I spoke with Dr. Lisa Girard, Director of Scientific Communications at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here, she explains why science communication is important, her path into the field, and how scientists can expand the reach of their work both within and outside of the scientific community.
How did you get into your career in science communication?
My path from bench scientist to scientific communications was actually very serendipitous. All through school I had always loved to write and edit — but I also loved science and doing research. During graduate school, I looked forward to any opportunities I had to write, or help someone write, pretty much anything about science. I even loved writing my thesis! Once I was a postdoc, I still planned to have a career in research, but I was also doing some freelance writing and editing. When I finished, my advisor offered me a role creating an online review for C. elegans biology. That review became WormBook, and that was my transition from the bench.
Why is it important for scientists to communicate their research outside of traditional publishing channels?
Scientific journals are aimed almost exclusively at a scientific audience. Beyond that community, there’s a significant audience that wants to understand research that’s happening, both for its own importance, as well as to consider how findings could inform fields such as medicine, climate change, agricultural policy, and more.
How does your science communications office at the Broad work with researchers? How do you decide what to focus on?
Broad Communications creates a range of different types of content, including press releases, blogs, news stories, profiles, and videos to tell the story of the science happening here. We try to talk regularly with researchers around the institute so we know what’s going on. They also reach out to us if, for example, they’re publishing a paper that they think is interesting. Additionally, our office works with reporters to let them know about stories they might like to cover, and then connects them with the appropriate individuals for interviews.
What are some ways that researchers in the lab can directly share their work with people who wouldn’t normally see it?
There are many ways to share your work beyond the confines of your weekly lab meeting! Look for opportunities to speak at less-specialized conferences, see what your university or institute does in terms of partnering with local schools, look to become involved with a speaker series in your town or city, or see if your university has a publication (such as a newspaper or magazine) to which you could contribute.
Give me three tips to ensure that researchers communicate their science effectively.
First, skip the jargon. Scientists spend a lot of time talking with other researchers whose work is very similar to their own, so it’s easy to forget that much of what they consider everyday vocabulary is pretty close to gibberish for a non-expert who wants to hear about your work. Use accessible language. If you must use a technical term, explain what it means.
Second, get to the point. When people are reading what you’ve written or are listening to you, you should frame what you are presenting so your audience can quickly have a handle of what you are intending to convey.
Third, don’t overstate your conclusions. Do not try and make your topic or findings seem more impactful than they might actually be.
Lisa Girard, PhD is Director of Scientific Communications at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she works to create content that translates findings from Broad scientists for the interested non-expert. Previously, Lisa was the science editor at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and a scientific editor at the California Institute of Technology. Lisa received her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley and completed a postdoc in C. elegans genetics at the California Institute of Technology.
Aliyah Weinstein is a graduate student in immunology at the University of Pittsburgh, where her research focuses on the pathways controlling anti-tumor immunity. Outside of the lab she enjoys learning languages, trying to achieve her goal of visiting all 50 U.S. states, and eating at all of Pittsburgh’s delicious restaurants. You can find Aliyah on LinkedIn, Twitter, and her blog.