Diving Headfirst into Science Communication
Are you interested in science communication opportunities but aren’t sure how they could benefit your degree? I found myself in the same situation, considering whether participating in science communication would be seen as beneficial or as taking time away from my research. Ultimately, I learned that while science communication may not typically be emphasized in graduate degree programs, it is a vitally important part of one’s training as a scientist in today’s world. The booming field of science communication (SciComm) offers great avenues to develop effective communication skills while also sharing your research broadly.
As an incoming Ph.D. student, I was nervous about exploring SciComm. It was a new space for me, and I was not confident in my abilities to navigate it. However, because I have participated in science outreach events, I now feel I have the tools and knowledge required of a science communicator. At Duke, SciComm opportunities are abundant and are often advertised in professional development newsletters and on the Duke Science and Society website. There are also SciComm workshops offered throughout the Triangle. I have participated in a few, including ComSciCon Triangle and SciREN Triangle. I built on my local experiences to take my SciComm training to the international stage through a SciComm initiative sponsored by SigmaXi: #SciCommMake.
#SciCommMake aims to connect scientists, science communicators, and artists to develop projects that can share novel research with broad audiences. Each year the initiative funds projects centered around a particular theme—this past year’s theme being “Public Health for All.” Interested participants submit an online application and go through a series of Zoom speed-dating sessions to identify scientists, communicators, and/or artists with whom they would like to work. Then, groups are formed to pitch project ideas, requiring teams to briefly explain their SciComm objectives with the goal of standing out and catching the attention of the judges. In 2022, four out of six pitches persuaded the judges and received funding.
My team successfully pitched a #SciCommMake project and was awarded $1,000 to carry it through. I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Bob Currier, a research scientist at GCOOS and Texas A&M, and Dr. Clare Gibson, a filmmaker from Canada. Our pitch was to create a series of TikTok videos highlighting the science of Florida red tide algal blooms. These algal blooms plague oceans waters—often resulting in mass die-offs of marine life. They can be harmful to humans with respiratory conditions, which many beachgoers are unaware of. Our goal was to reach an audience outside of the scope of previous communication campaigns: Gen-Zers residing in the Florida Gulf Coast Region. Gen-Zers are known to still go to the beach even if a large algal bloom is causing them to cough. We had four months to execute our project and received plentiful feedback from expert science communicators along the way.
Our team made four short videos individually highlighting the ecology of the red tide, the scientists who study the phenomenon, ways to become involved as a citizen scientist, and ways to keep safe. My role in the project was to write and record the scripts for the short videos. The science of the red tide strays quite a bit away from my day-to-day research. Therefore, I was challenged to use my broader scientific background and creativity to effectively communicate the intricacies of the algal bloom. Bob provided scientific details, photos, and B-roll, and Clare tied everything together in video deliverables. We ultimately shared the videos as Instagram Reels on the GCOOS Instagram, and the reels have been shared on other platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
After project completion, #SciCommMake teams were invited to present at the Science Talk ‘23 Conference in Portland, Oregon. The conference brings together science communicators from across the globe to discuss future directions of the field, to network, and to share SciComm experiences. I attended the conference in person, and in doing so, I learned a tremendous amount about the field of science communication. Notably, my in-person attendance at Science Talk was facilitated through a Professional Development Award from the Science Communicators of North Carolina (SCONC) and a Conference Travel Award from the University Scholars Program (USP) at Duke. SCONC is a Raleigh-based organization that offers SciComm professional development opportunities and fosters a community of SciComm enthusiasts across North Carolina.
While attending the conference, I gained crucial experience presenting to an unfamiliar audience as Clare and I presented our #SciCommMake project. Initially, the idea of presenting to a body of professional science communicators seemed daunting. I was a newcomer in the space and did not want to embarrass myself. However, I built camaraderie and confidence before getting on stage by networking and consulting with professional communicators whom I looked up to. Afterward, I received positive feedback on the presentation and was happy to spark up conversations with strangers about our work.
Excitingly, I met many professional science communicators working in numerous sectors of science—academia, industry, freelance, and government. I now have contacts across the U.S. with whom I can collaborate in the future. In addition, I learned communication tips like how to construct an engaging personal website and how to identify what your audience values. I left the conference with new ambitions to learn skills in graphic design, photography, and scientific writing. Most importantly, I acquired a new confidence in my SciComm abilities. I am thrilled to continue growing as a science communicator, and I am grateful to the inspiring people I met in Portland for their advice and friendliness.
I share this experience to show how plentiful the opportunities are for getting involved in science communication. There are local, national, and international options. The best part is, no matter your availability, there are options for you. The SciComm space is extremely welcoming to newcomers, so do not be afraid to dive-in headfirst. I am sure you will find the experience not only personally fulfilling, but also professionally rewarding.
Ph.D. student, Biology
Hannah Kania is a first-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Biology. She conducts research in speciation biology and genomics. Hannah holds a B.A. in Developmental Genetics from the University of California, Berkeley. Prior to attending Duke, Hannah worked at the University of Michigan as a lab technician studying yeast genetics. She is passionate about science communication and outreach and has participated in multiple science dissemination initiatives throughout her professional career; you can read more about them on her website.