Formalizing science communication training for graduate students

Two-part course at UC Riverside instructs and inspires young scientists to tell stories that provoke ‘meaningful exchange of ideas’ with the public

Young scientists’ stories

Sarah Reinhard ‘To create a new voice’
by Sarah Reinhard
Shirin Mesbah ‘My responsibility’
by Shirin Mesbah
Jon Sudduth ‘The situation is not the politicians’ fault’
by Jon Sudduth
Cole Symanski ‘The importance of personal branding’
by Cole Symanski
Lisa Tang ‘Know your audience’
by Lisa Tang

Three years ago, when the chair of the biochemistry department of the University of California, Riverside, asked me to teach a graduate seminar course, I was somewhat unsure and took some time to think about the request. These generally are considered to be plum teaching assignments, because they require minimal preparation and grading involves listening to students deliver short seminars on their research. Still, my hesitancy was due to my belief that, while most graduate departments of biochemistry do offer some sort of training in how to deliver a seminar, such courses in fact do little to prepare our students to give effective seminars.
To better inform my decision, I read a few books on the subject of science communication — specifically, Randy Olson’s “Don’t Be Such a Scientist,” Cornelia Dean’s “Am I Making Myself Clear?” and Nancy Baron’s “Escape From the Ivory Tower” — that left me energized and ready to take on the course. I elected to do the course as a two-quarter sequence rather than in a single quarter as it always had been.
The first quarter focuses on the mechanics of delivering a strong research seminar. Students sit together and discuss what makes a seminar good and memorable. From these discussions, the students develop a scoring rubric with which they evaluate all seminars in the department for that quarter. Little do our visitors realize that they are being scored by the graduate students!
The first 15 minutes (of the two-hour class period) each week is devoted to discussing that week’s seminar — not just the science but the mechanics as well. Did the speaker tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end? Did the speaker lead the audience on a memorable journey? Or was the presentation more of a chronology — “we did this and then this and then this”? This exercise does more to enlighten the students to what makes a seminar good, or not so good, than any amount of lecturing by me or reading of experts in the field.
Then the students develop and deliver three presentations: first, a 15-minute narrative that would be fitting for the third-year undergraduate biochemistry course; second, a 15-minute discussion appropriate for a senior-level high-school science class; and finally, a 30-minute research presentation appropriate for first-year graduate students. The students grade each other using the rubric they used to score the visiting speakers.
The second quarter focuses students’ attention on the problems associated with communication with nonscientists. After several weeks of reading and group discussion, we invite guests to join the class to allow the students to experience firsthand the issues involved in communication with various audiences.
Our visitors have included reporters who write about scientific topics; the chief science writer for the university; U.S. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif.; California State Assembly Rep. Jose Medina and information-technology professionals who talked about use of social media.
Thinking back on my initial hesitancy in taking on the assignment, I am somewhat amused. I now have taught these courses three times, with each experience being enormously rewarding to me. The students leave the course with a totally different feeling about the importance of mastering the skills of communication. Equipped with these new skills, they are aware that for any form of communication to be successful they must first develop a good understanding of their audience. Only then can they bring forth a meaningful exchange of ideas.

The art of science communication
The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology is seeking participants to take part in a pilot version of “The Art of Science Communication,” an online course being developed by the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee as part of its science communication training program.
The course will be about eight weeks long, starting in September. During that time, we will cover the important components of what makes for a successful presentation, such as messaging, generating interest and engaging your audience. Training will be provided via a combination of lectures, live mentoring sessions and virtual discussions. The course will culminate with each participant giving his or her own live presentation, utilizing the skills learned in the course.
We expect participants will spend two to three hours on the course each week. As this is a pilot version, we want, and expect, participants to provide extensive feedback, both good and bad, on the content, format and merits of the course. Those insights will greatly assist the development of both this course and our science communication training program, helping us to grow the community of scientific communicators.
Interested in participating in our pilot program? Contact us at
Thomas BaldwinThomas O. Baldwin (thomas.baldwin@ is a professor at the University of California, Riverside, and chairman of ASBMB’s Public Outreach Committee.