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Branching Out Beyond the Ivory Tower: Using Outreach to Enhance Your Professional Development

January 22, 2019
Image of neurons

Many graduate students feel as though they don’t have time to prioritize communicating their work to others. Between research, teaching, and personal commitments, finding time to teach your area of expertise to the public can be difficult.

Students are often unaware of how educational outreach can positively influence both their audience and their own careers. In this post, I will explain the benefits of outreach, outline how my experiences with outreach have enhanced my professional development, and offer strategies for getting started.

Who Benefits from Outreach?

Many of us have heard about the benefits of outreach in encouraging children to pursue STEM fields, or in communicating with lawmakers to advocate for research-based legislation. But when it comes to actually doing the communication, students often believe that outreach detracts from their research.

However, studies show that by teaching others, students actually strengthen research skills such as designing experiments and drawing conclusions from data. Additionally, teaching others may lead to a greater understanding of your area of expertise, which can inform and reframe your work, and can even increase productivity as measured by publication and presentation rate.

Outreach also allows students to establish a connection to the broader community, and students who engage in outreach may discover a previously unidentified passion for communicating their work beyond the lab or the traditional classroom. My outreach experiences played a major role in helping me appreciate my passion for science communication. As an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University, I first became involved in outreach through the Neuroscience Student Advisory Council, a group of students interested in neuroscience. I initially joined the group to meet like-minded students and learn more about my field, but I quickly realized that spreading the word about neuroscience was a major focus of the organization. Although I had never participated in science outreach before, I began to attend the events and discovered that teaching children about the brain was fun and educational both for me and for the children we were teaching.

As a rising junior, I learned about Nu Rho Psi, an outreach-focused neuroscience honor society. Starting a chapter seemed like a great opportunity to connect my community to a broader network of neuroscience students and professionals who were working toward similar goals. A few months later, I founded a chapter at my institution. As the president of this group, I led over 30 annual hours of outreach activities at local schools, through STEM fairs at museums, and on campus. Our most ambitious outreach initiative was a self-designed three-hour workshop for elementary and middle school students, in which the children worked through a series of games, demonstrations, and crafts to learn about the brain. Students were excited about what they learned, and some even expressed interest in further opportunities to learn about neuroscience. I watched students’ faces light up as they made a friend’s arm move involuntarily, as they realized that they had been tricked by a clever optical illusion, and as they touched a real sheep’s brain to compare it to their own. I had successfully conveyed the excitement that I felt about neuroscience to others who were experiencing this new knowledge for the first time, and this realization made for a rewarding experience after several months of planning for the event.

Image of neuroscience outreach event

Leading outreach activities for my Nu Rho Psi chapter allowed me to help my peers learn about neuroscience outside the classroom and build their confidence in teaching neuroscience to others. In addition, this experience enabled me to solidify my understanding of my work, and helped me improve professional skills such as public speaking, writing, leadership, and event coordination. While I once planned to pursue a research career, I now know that I want to contribute to science communication and advocacy professionally, and I have a greater understanding of steps that I can take as a graduate student to work toward that goal. A graduate degree opens doors for communicating about a field by participating in outreach at nonprofit organizations and museums, writing for popular websites or magazines, and engaging in policy work with lawmakers. My outreach experiences have inspired me to seek out opportunities in each of these domains to learn more about careers in science communication.

How to Get Started

If you’d like to gain outreach experience, start small. Determine whether a group already exists at Duke that does outreach in your subject area, and attend an upcoming event. Groups are often excited for students to take on leadership roles early in their involvement. I recently became involved in planning outreach events through the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences Graduate Student Consortium, and I have volunteered with the Research Triangle Chapter of the Graduate Women in Science (GWIS), the Duke Science Olympiad, and the North Carolina Science and Engineering Fair. Similar groups at Duke or in Durham perform outreach in a variety of fields.

If no such group exists, you can still get started. Talk to other students in your department to gauge interest in forming a group, and consider working with your peers to establish an outreach program in partnership with a local school, museum, or professional organization in your field.

Whether working alone or in a group, it can be helpful to set goals such as participating in two outreach opportunities each semester. Setting this regular schedule will ensure that you stay active in outreach and gradually build your skill toolkit through the events you attend.

In Conclusion

Sharing academic work with the public can result in immeasurable benefits to both the audience and the communicator. If you haven’t taken part in outreach, I highly encourage you to do so. You may even discover an unknown passion that could become your career.


Meredith Schmehl

Headshot of Meredith Schmehl

Ph.D. student, Neurobiology

Meredith Schmehl is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Neurobiology. As an undergraduate, she founded the Carnegie Mellon University chapter of Nu Rho Psi, and was recently recognized as the National Outstanding Member of the Year by the Nu Rho Psi National Council. At Duke, Meredith has remained involved in outreach through several student groups. Follow Meredith’s science communication and advocacy work on Twitter and Medium, connect with her on LinkedIn, and find out more on her personal website.

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