by Erica Landis
Learning how to communicate science to the public is vital for graduate students today; however, many programs do not offer formal training in communication. This gap has been filled by ComSciCon, an annual science communication training conference organized by and for graduate students interested in learning how to share their science knowledge with the wider world. ComSciCon is a national body which has given rise to a handful of regional meetings now joined by ComSciConATL. Organized by four graduate students (including our own Anzar Abbas), ComSciConATL brought together 50 graduate students from the Atlanta area and greater Southeast region in early March to learn science communication skills through interactive workshops, panels and networking with local experts, and collaboration between fellow attendees.
I first applied to attend the conference in December because I wanted an opportunity to improve my writing skills and learn more about science communication as a career. I was thrilled to hear a few weeks later that I would be able to go and even more excited to learn that fellow Neuroscience students Amielle Moreno, Carlie Hoffman, and Kristie Garza would be there too! By the time I left ComSciConATL after two packed days of learning and discussion, I felt more confident about my communication skills, had built a new and supportive network of peers and local communication experts, and was inspired to start telling the world about science. While I had dabbled in science communication previously, ComSciConATL prepared me to take it to the next level.
One thing that came up throughout the conference was the idea that there are many ways to communicate science but that doing it right requires intention. In each of the workshops and with each panel we learned about communication tools I had never thought to utilize before, including 3D printing and video games, plays and podcasts, and infographics and gifs. Now more than ever it seems young science communicators like us have access to a wide range of tools. Of course, each tool is only as good as its user. Several of the experts that participated in the conference stressed being intentional about how we tell science stories. We got advice on bringing rich details out of stories and how to balance the scientific accuracy with engaging details.
A moment of the conference that has stuck with me was during the panel on the second morning when scientist and outreach specialist Christopher Parsons reminded us that, “we have to have humility when approaching scientific engagement.” Scientists are becoming more enthusiastic about reaching out to the public but if we don’t take care to listen to what the public has to say or make those interactions mutually beneficial, we will only repeat mistakes from our collective past.
One of the best parts of being a ComSciConATL attendee was having the chance to discuss ideas like Parsons’ with the other attendees. In addition to hearing from science outreach experts, the conference allowed us to learn from each other, and I will say I really learned a lot. Toward the end of our two days together, we were invited to write our ideas on a Collaboration Wall where we could see projects and events others were planning and write responses or volunteer to help. I was impressed and inspired by everything my peers were thinking about, not to mention their ongoing projects in lab. We also had the opportunity to get feedback from each other on our elevator talks. This part of the conference was a surprise to us. Six of us at a time gave elevator talks in front of everyone throughout the two days. The audience got “Jargon” and “Awesome” cards to hold up as real-time feedback for the speaker. Giving a talk this way was intimidating but incredibly helpful. Activities like this helped us learn from each other and build a network of new collaborators.
While I went to ComSciConATL to practice writing and learn about career options, I left inspired and enthusiastic about the scientific research being done today and what it will mean for the public. Now, I and others that went to the conference have the skills to share that science with others. I believe the benefits of ComSciConATL will continue to help us in whatever comes next.
For other Neuroscience students interested in science communication, I strongly recommend applying to attend ComSciConATL next year! Expect those applications to open in late fall. You can also apply to attend the national ComSciCon meeting. If you just can’t wait, look out for the JPE 610 sessions How to translate “academia” into an accessible, meaningful story with Janece Schaffer, a playwright with The Alliance Theater who lead a similar session for ComSciConATL.
Photos taken by ComSciConATL organizers Anzar Abbas and Carleen Sabusap