How Does Communication Training Benefit Scientists?

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I’ve just launched my first crowdfunding campaign for a student run science communication program that I’ve been involved with for many years: The Engage Program. If you haven’t heard, crowdfunding is the collective effort of many individuals to raise money for a cause, and it’s all the rage in science, especially in the face of shrinking budgets and grant opportunities. The high level goal of this project is to increase the communication training opportunities available to scientists by quantifying how such training benefits their careers. This project is part of a research specific crowdfunding program called the #SciFund challenge. They recently interviewed me about the project, read about it below!

Tell us about yourself, where you are from, and where you see yourself going.

I’m a former fishery scientist who made a career switch into science communication. I decided that if I wanted my science to truly have an impact and help citizens to make informed decisions, I needed to learn to engage with the public and tell them why my research is important to them. Now I teach a graduate level science communication course at the University of Washington, part of the Engage Program.

I’m from and currently live in Seattle (go HAWKS!) and I’m lucky to have such a supportive science communication community around me– the Engage Program students and volunteers,University of Washington College of the Environment science communication task force, and my colleagues and friends at Science Online Seattle. They’ve supported me, inspired me, and empowered me to initiate projects that, without them, I might not have believed I could do.

PINKYWhere am I going? Why, to change the world, of course!

How did you get involved in your research project?

I spearheaded this research because I attended COMPASS’ #GradSciComm workshop, where science communication training leaders put their heads together to figure out how we can integrate communication training into the curriculum of graduate students. Two critical roadblocks to this goal emerged: lack of evaluation of communication training programs’ effectiveness, and lack of support from the advisors of students who wish to take such courses. Our research aims to tackle these two roadblocks by providing a framework for evaluating the effectiveness of our training program and evaluating the benefits of the training program to the careers of students.

Why is your research important to you? Why should others fund it?

“With the knowledge of science we can solve resource limitations, cure diseases, and make society work happily—but only if people can figure out what in the world scientists are talking about and why they should care.” –Randy Olson, Don’t Be Such a Scientist

We’re trying to give science a stronger voice in public discourse and decision making by helping science grad students learn to be better communicators. Although we know that being a good communicator makes you a better leader and a better scientist, there are still advisors out there who think communication training isn’t the best use of their students time, that they should be focusing on research instead. We want to quantify the benefits of communication training for scientists to give those students the leverage they need to take communication courses and/or create their own training programs.

Why did you decide to participate in the SciFund Challenge?

I think #SciFund will give us valuable data! In the face of ever-tightening science budgets, we need to know how to make science crowdfunding successful so that more researchers feel empowered to try it. Additionally, the #SciFund challenge provides a sense of community. There are nearly 30 researchers who have entered into this intimidating new frontier together. We support one another and provide feedback on each other’s work. We don’t have to go it alone.

Tell us something random. Something funny. Something borrowed. Something blue.

In class, we practice improv activities to teach students how to respond positively to unexpected situations, like when you get asked a question only vaguely related to your research after you give a presentation. I love this part of class, because I get to be totally silly! It’s a great creative outlet in the otherwise too serious life of a scientist. In this video, we’re playing a game where one person makes a motion and sound for an animal, then they pass it to somebody else, then that person repeats the animal, then makes up their own. Check out my horse impression!

Engage Program In Class Improv from Jessica Rohde on Vimeo.

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Visualizing Global Fisheries Data

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Data visualization. Open science. Open data. Interactive graphics. And fisheries. These are a few of my favorite things, and this summer I wrangled them all together for one exciting project: the RAM legacy stock assessment database.

This database has existed for years, but offered little more than a public portal to the data. Dr. Ray Hilborn at the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences saw room for improvement. He asked me to develop a web site that not only made the database accessible, but provided data summaries and interactive graphics that would make the site more useful to fisheries scientists.

Two exciting components of this work allowed me to further develop my skills in web interactivity and data visualization.

The map below allows users to access regional summaries of the data by clicking on different regions. I developed it in Arc GIS and made it entirely interactive and responsive through CSS.

The following dynamic data visualization allows users to visualize trends in the data by showing up to five dimensions at once: the x and y-axes, the size and color of the points, and the movement of those points through time. I programmed visualizations for several regions of the database using the GoogleVis package in R.

I’ll soon be making a screen cast that explains how to use and interpret this figure, but for now, I’ll attempt to explain it to you via text. The figure shows different fish groups (stocks) as points (mouse over them to see what they are). The size of the point represents the amount recommended to be fished (MSY) and color represents taxonomic groupings. The x-axis shows a measure of the relative size of the population, and on the y-axis the relative fishing pressure. To really understand what’s going on, you need to know that points in the upper left corner represent groups of fish that aren’t doing so well: they have small populations and high fishing pressure. Points in the lower right corner are relatively healthy: they have large populations and low fishing pressure. Press play on the bottom left to see how the relative health of these groups of fish changed over many decades.

 

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Teaching Science Graduate Students to Tell Stories

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Today’s early career scientists face staggering challenges:  heavy competition for tenure-track positions, budget cuts and sequesters, and a media landscape rampant with science denial. Now more than ever, these scientists need to effectively communicate why their work matters. However, most graduate STEM programs thrive on a finely tuned curriculum tailored to gaining subject-specific expertise; communication to non-experts is rarely included. Scientists, graduate students, and science communicators everywhere call for science communication to become an part of STEM graduate student education (for background, see COMPASS’ #gradscicomm project).

Engage students playing an improv game during class (see the article in the Seattle Times)

At the Engage Program, we’re leading this movement.  It began with a small group of dedicated University of Washington graduate students who wanted to share their science with the Seattle community. Three years later, the program has evolved to include an official University of Washington seminar course, a speaker series at Town Hall Seattle, and a podcast. We were even featured in the Seattle Times.

I first got involved with this program when I enrolled in the course and gave a public presentation on my research. I have since helped secure funding for the program, re-designed the website, and best of all, am now teaching the University of Washington graduate level course. The course not only teaches the science communication fundamentals, but gives the students real world experience: all students give public presentations on their research at Town Hall Seattle.

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I and the other Engage Directors are currently developing workshops based on our curriculum.

In class, I teach students to consider their audience, lose the jargon, and transform their research into a story. I and the Engage Board of Directors are currently designing science communication workshops based on our course curriculum (see an example of what a day in class is like to the right). Please get in touch with me if you would like to know more.

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Sharing my Science at Town Hall

While many of my science communication efforts take place online, sometimes you can’t beat talking about science with somebody face-to-face. You can gauge how an audience is following you by their body language,  answering their questions, spend more time on the pieces that they find interesting, and create a richer sensory experience that is so valuable to memory.

That’s why I gave a public presentation on my M.S. research at Town Hall Seattle in January 2012. This was my first public presentation, and you can tell from my stiffness that I was quite nervous to speak with authority to a group of ~25 civilians. But after the experience, my confidence in speaking about salmon migration in Puget Sound has increased significantly. I now find nothing more satisfying than taking the results of my master’s research, weaving it into a story, and relaying it to somebody who thinks they know nothing about salmon.

In order to give this presentation, I took a course at the University of Washington known as Communicating Science to the Public Effectively. I went on to become the instructor of this course the following year, and am on the board of directors for the Engage Program, from which the course was born. Check out their website (which I also designed) for more information about the program, or check out my post on what it was like to teach the course.

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The Glass Is Half Full at Conservation Magazine

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Faced with too much bad news, people tune out. I recently worked with Conservation magazine to challenge the “doom-and-gloom” paradigm in conservation journalism. While the print magazine is the main course, I helped spice up Conservation’s web presence: I rebuilt their website and reinvigorated their social media strategy. A dash of video here, and infographic there, and +3000 followers later, they’re engaging a new community of environmentalists interested in reading beyond the obituary and creating a greener future.

 

A collection of my social media shares

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Check out the new website

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