Lessons from ComSciCon-Local 2014

I just finished participating in ComSciCon 2014, and it was awesome. A *free* science communication workshop for grad students, this event was restricted to students from Harvard and MIT, though they hold another workshop in the summer that’s open to grad students across the U.S.Picture1

Right off the bat it was clear that everyone who attended was very excited about learning how to communicate science better. The most fun part of the workshop was definitely the pop talks, where we each had 60 seconds to describe our research with minimal jargon. The audience had neon orange “jargon” cards to hold up when we strayed, and green “awesome” cards for all-round encouragement and enthusiasm. Though this exercise sounded terrifying to me initially, we did a great job of being supportive and having fun with it. I’d strongly recommend something like it for anyone looking to develop their elevator pitch

The bulk of the work for the workshop was writing a pop sci article in the two weeks between our meetings. We got to read and critique each others’ pieces, and then discuss our work with a science communication expert. In my group, the supportive atmosphere of the pop talks carried over to the writing discussions, making it all very fun. An unexpected way in which I found this exercise useful was to compare my editing suggestions to that of our group expert–I found it reassuring that her major suggestions on the other two pieces were similar to my suggestions. As rare as it is to have an expert critique your work, It’s even rarer to be able to edit alongside an expert, and this is reason enough to apply to ComSciCon if you weren’t sold already!

The rest of our time was spent in panel discussions on science communication, and the workshop ended with a keynote address by NPR’s David Kestenbaum (as an avid This American Life listener, I’ll admit to being a little starstruck 🙂 ). Rather than describe each of these events, here’s a list of the most important things I learnt from them:

  • Popular science writing should not seek to teach science. Rather, it should attempt to tell a story that depends on science for its movement.
  • Relatedly, don’t expect readers to remember facts; instead, give them an experience of what it’s like to do science.
  • If you can’t come up with a good headline, you probably don’t have a story.
  • The story needs to bridge ideas–the initial idea behind your piece, and the idea to which your readers need to be taken.
  • Articles need a “lead,” in which you set up the scene in which your story takes place, and a “billboard,” in which you tell the reader what to expect from the article.
  • Simplification is not the same as distortion. If you think you’re distorting a concept by simplifying it, it might be that you just don’t yet understand the concept, or it’s importance, completely.
  • The findings of a scientific paper are not necessarily going to be the story points of your piece about the paper. Other features–the methods used, the location, the study organism, the scientist–might be more compelling than the actual results.

One of the panelists, David Aguilar, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, had these four lofty goals for us budding science communicators to aspire to, though his advice can apply to pretty much anyone:

  • Be excellent in your writing
  • Be aware of your surroundings, and of connections between different ideas in your surroundings
  • Be curious–ask why.
  • Be interesting.

Though I’m sure we’re all quite far from achieving those goals, ComSciCon was definitely a fantastic step in our progress towards them!

4 thoughts on “Lessons from ComSciCon-Local 2014

  1. Curious about your first point (pop sci writing should not seek to teach science). Really? Is it just that ‘teaching’ shouldn’t be the sole purpose? I’d like to think that learning something about science (facts/process/scientists) should at least be a byproduct of reading pop sci writing.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! Yes, I guess I should elaborate–I think the point being made was that one can’t set out with the sole objective of teaching science. For example, an article that simply teaches readers about Newton’s Laws of Motion with tired examples of falling apples wouldn’t be a good idea. But if you have a story that people may be interested in (e.g. the physics of car pile-ups) that needs a reader to understand Newton’s Laws for the story to progress, then you can still teach the reader this science without making them feel like they are being taught.

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