Communications training near you

Expanding the reach of ‘The Art of Science Communication’

Published June 29 2016

Effective communication is critical for effective outreach. That is why communication training has been a central effort of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Public Outreach Committee since its inception. Through our recently developed online course, “ The Art of Science Communication,” we have begun providing participants with fundamental training for presenting science to nonexpert audiences in formal settings. Now that the course has been running for several months, the committee is looking for ways to expand participation.

One way we hope to extend the course’s reach is by partnering with external organizations — including universities, professional societies and private companies — that will then provide their members access to the content. We believe that increasing the number of course participants in this way will lead to a stronger, more effective community of science communicators. We are also looking for ways to recruit additional instructors who are associated with these organizations and can help lead the virtual course.

This expanded training need not occur only online. We also have begun running blended versions of “The Art of Science Communication” in which participants familiarize themselves with the course content online before meeting on a campus for facilitated class discussions. Hudson Freeze, who is on our outreach committee, led this type of blended course at his home institution, Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in La Jolla, Calif., in the beginning of 2016. “I like the blended course because all of us make a production together,” says Freeze. “We get to know each other and watch personalities emerge as the students tell their own personal scientific stories.” Freeze says he would “encourage anyone to feel the exhilaration and satisfaction of developing their own story in a setting like this.”

The committee also is developing a series of in-person instructional workshops that are separate from but complement what takes place in the online course. Two such workshops were piloted at the 2016 Experimental Biology meeting. One version, led by committee members Susanna Greer of the American Cancer Society and Tom Baldwin of the University of California, Riverside, introduced attendees to the skill of giving an elevator pitch. Attendees learned how to describe their research pithily and had a chance to practice their pitches in front of peers. One attendee described the workshop’s impact by saying, “I can better articulate my research to others, and I have learned that who I am is very important to communicate to others.”

The other workshop, led by me and staff member Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay, focused on storytelling. Using examples from cinema, children’s books, scientific papers and the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” we organizers showed how narrative themes such as plot, character, tension and emotion can be applied to science communication. Attendees incorporated these lessons into their own science stories, which they presented to the rest of the group in a great variety of styles including rhymes, poetry and even children’s stories.

The high turnout and positive feedback from these pilot workshop attendees have encouraged the committee to bring live trainings to additional meetings, events and institutions throughout the scientific community. We will host workshops at career symposia at the University of Kansas Medical Center on July 28 and the University of Texas on Sept. 10 as well as during the society’s Special Symposium on Transcriptional Regulation, to be held Oct. 6 through Oct. 10 in Snowbird, Utah. We also have been invited to present our workshop at the annual meeting of the American Society of Plant Biologists in July and intend to present at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Nov. 2016.

To help support these future workshops, the society has applied for funding from the National Institutes of Health’s Innovative Programs to Enhance Research Training program. We also are developing additional workshops and online training modules based on different communication themes and designed to resonate with various audiences. For example, the outreach committee is collaborating with the ASBMB Public Affairs Advisory Committee to develop training related to communicating with policymakers.

Want to know how your organization can partner with the ASBMB to bring our training to your colleagues and members? Interested in having us bring our training program to your town or institution? Please contact us.

Geoff Hunt Geoff Hunt is ASBMB’s outreach manager. Follow him on Twitter.