Yale Science Diplomats: DIY science outreach

Science outreach efforts often are run by a few passionate individuals who possess ample dedication but lack experience running an organization. Yale Science Diplomats is a great example of a graduate student-run outreach group that started small but has developed into a successful, sustainable program. By sharing our experiences and the knowledge that we have gained in the process, we hope to inspire other graduate students at institutions around the country to follow in our footsteps.
Now in its sixth year, YSD has about 25 graduate students and postdocs. The group runs events, workshops and other programs at the interface of science and policy. For example, in our annual Science in the News series, graduate students and postdocs explain the actual research behind hot-button issues like climate change and genetically modified organisms to the greater New Haven community. YSD also organizes seminars and workshops for scientists, such as a policy-writing workshop, a mock policy debate about dual-use research and a seminar on communicating science to the public.
Groups like YSD are proliferating across the country, but if you can’t find the right group for you at your own institution, why not start your own? Here are some tips for starting and running your own student outreach group:

Pick something you’re passionate about

YSD was founded by a group of graduate students inspired by a presentation about scientists pursuing policy careers at the “What can you be with a PhD?” event in New York City. Griselda Zuccarino-Catania, one of YSD’s founding members, said that she and her colleagues already were “interested in scientists being better communicators and interacting with the community.” After the presentation on policy careers, she says, “we thought it was a cool idea to have scientists more involved in politics … We were excited to bring this to Yale, so we decided to form the group and spread the word to see who else might be interested.”

Find other like-minded colleagues and work together

Doing something meaningful outside of the lab will require a team of like-minded people. Jessica McDonald, another founding member of YSD, emphasizes the importance of building a strong team. “I think one of the secrets behind our success was that early on, our group was small and made of friends,” she says, “[so] there was a genuine bond and a sense of responsibility to each other.”

Come up with a mission statement and start with small, defined goals

According to McDonald, “many of our initial ideas were too nebulous, and people wanted to help, but it wasn’t clear to them how they could do so.” Former YSD President Elizabeth Stulberg suggests: “Start by drafting a mission statement. Figure out exactly what you want to do and what your group can contribute.” YSD’s mission is to foster a scientifically informed electorate. This mission statement is broad enough to encompass the range of different workshops and outreach activities that YSD runs but still narrow enough to keep the group focused.

Define a leadership structure and divide responsibility

There are many different leadership structures, so experiment to find the right one. For example, YSD has several committees, each focusing on a specific event or type of project, such as the Science in the News committee. The key to organizing Science in the News and our other events has been breaking them into small, manageable tasks like finding speakers, booking locations and advertising.
Members of Yale Science Diplomats
Back row (left to right): Danielle Larese, Kimberly Barrett, Michael Manas, Brandon Nam, Chris Mckitterick, Evan Pease, Bryan Leland, Richard Sarro. Second row from the back: Chad Miller, Shannon Stewart, April Rose, Jen Gillies, Lily Guillot, Allison Gilder, Jessica Miles (trip co-organizer). First row: William Gray, Nathalie Celcis, Irene Tebbs, Rebecca Brown, Nina Brahme (trip co-organizer), Elizabeth Turner, Olivia Kelada, Jedidah Isler, Sarah Schreiner, Vincent Yip. Seated: Lu Jin, Ruiqi Mao

Pool resources and collaborate

At a large university, it can be challenging to identify existing resources. Seek out university offices or other campus groups that have people, ideas, money or other resources you need. Many large schools have offices dedicated to teaching, career services, community outreach, and press or communications — these all may be good places to start. If something similar to what you want to do exists already, collaborate! YSD co-organized a career trek with Graduate Career Services. Graduate students interested in policy careers went to Washington for two days to network with scientists at various government agencies. Combining YSD’s resources with Graduate Career Services was critical to the trip’s success.

Raise money and apply for funding

While there are many simple events and initiatives that do not require funding, eventually you may want to raise money for more ambitious efforts. Find funding opportunities at your university such as a student-activities or career-services fund. Look for community-development grants in your city or county. Many scientific societies also have grants available for outreach activities. For example, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology funds seed grants to help outreach programs get started.

Recruit new members

Make your group sustainable by actively recruiting participants, especially first-year graduate students. For example, bring fliers or a poster to department orientations and other events. Social activities are another great way to spread the word about your group. YSD runs a “Welcome BBQ” during orientation to tell incoming graduate students about our group and how they can get involved.

Don’t stop when you graduate!

The leadership and communication skills you gain from a student outreach group are useful for virtually any career path. After graduating, several YSD members have continued to pursue their interests in science communication and policy. McDonald is a health reporter for WHYY in Philadelphia and the Web intern at Science Friday. Stulberg is an American Society for Microbiology Science and Technology fellow in the office of U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y.
Leading your own outreach group will not only allow you to share your knowledge and passion for science with the public. It will give you valuable skills that translate to nearly any career.
Bryan LelandBryan Leland (bryan.leland@yale.edu) is the co-president of the Yale Science Diplomats.