A Workshop for All Types of Science Communication Goals

 April 25, 2018

ComSciCon Triangle 2018 logo

Communicating with other people about what we do is an important aspect of our professional development. Yet many of us struggle to explain the nitty-gritty aspects of our research in accessible and concise language. Whether you want to get better at communicating your research or you’re committed to pursuing a career in science writing, ComSciCon-Triangle is a great place to learn how.

This workshop takes place over two Saturdays in Raleigh in the spring and features science communication experts from the Triangle area. ComSciCon-Triangle is organized “by graduate students, for graduate students.” It provided me with several useful science writing and presentation lessons, career advice, and writing feedback. These lessons included storytelling, jargon thresholds, and culturally relevant communication.

Storytelling in science is important so that we can engage our audience and make an impact. Stories begin with a problem (think big picture), which answers the question of why you research what you research. This provides context for your results and message. Stories end by summarizing the implications of these results, such as for society in general. We learned that it’s okay to share your personal reasons for deciding on your research field. We also learned about humanizing scientists and using sensory language so that general audiences can more easily project themselves into our stories.

When telling stories, we need to carefully choose if or when we use jargon. Instead of a flat-out rule of “no jargon,” we learned that audiences have a jargon limit and that jargon should be explained if used. If you’re unsure if a word is jargon, it probably is.

Keynote speaker Mónica Feliú-Mójer explained how our stories also need to be culturally relevant to our intended audience. This could mean aligning our examples and metaphors with our audience’s values, interests, and geographic location.

The workshop also featured a career networking lunch. My group met with Abby Olena, a science journalist and science communication educator. Abby kicked off her career in science writing via the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship, a competitive program that matches graduate students and recent grads with media outlets for a summer internship. For those interested in pursuing this opportunity, she recommended joining NPR’s Friends of Joe’s Big Idea, a science communication community for graduate students, which can offer advice and feedback on applications. Abby also recommended reaching out to and talking with local science writers. It’s important to find mentors who are supportive of your career goals and who can serve as your recommenders for future career opportunities.

To facilitate writing feedback, ComSciCon pairs participants into groups with a local expert. Each participant receives feedback on a writing piece (or other media) by their group and the expert. Then, we can attempt to publish our piece in a media outlet (e.g., Scientific American’s “Observations” blog) with the help of ComSciCon organizers. I was extremely grateful for the opportunity because it a) gave me a deadline to finish an article draft, b) gave me useful feedback, and c) was a chance to add to my portfolio.

Overall, ComSciCon exceeded my expectations. The organizers fostered a fun and energetic environment which also allowed for networking with other participants. Most importantly, we were reassured that scientific research and science communication do not have to be mutually exclusive, and that it’s okay to be committed to both. I definitely recommend applying for this professional development opportunity next year.

Editors' note: The blog post Sarah workshopped during ComSciCon-Triangle was published on the Scientific American guest blog. As of June 22, 2018, you can read "How to Fix Recommendation Bias and Evaluation Inflation," which notes, "It's rampant in academia, but the U.S. Marine Corps can help."


Sarah Loftus
Sarah Loftus

Ph.D. student, Ecology

Sarah Loftus is a PhD candidate in the University Program in Ecology seeking to advance the potential of bioenergy. Her research focuses on cost-saving methods to grow algae for biofuel production. Sarah is also a blogger for the Nicholas School of the Environment.