September 2011

Students on front lines of public engagement


Harvard's Science in the News program includes a variety of outreach activities and is being held up as a model.

Jeff Teigler

Tammy Slenn

When the H1N1 outbreak occurred in 2009, Jeff Teigler was starting a graduate program in virology at Harvard Medical School.

"I was the only person interested in viruses that most of my friends and family knew. In answering their questions – What is swine flu? How is it worse than regular flu? Why can't I just ask for antibiotics from my doctor? – I realized how big the gap was between scientists' understanding and how that translated into public knowledge about something as common as our yearly encounter with influenza," Teigler says.

Later that year, Teigler co-presented a public lecture at Harvard Medical School on swine flu, and today he helps to run a program that focuses on scientific literacy.

Science in the News, a volunteer organization at Harvard University, was founded in 1999. Teigler has been co-director since January 2010, and Tammy Slenn joined him at the helm in January 2011.

Teigler describes SITN's mission as having three goals: 1) to fill the gap in access to science information after formal education, 2) to address cases of widespread misinformation and misunderstanding of science, and 3) to create an avenue for direct communication between the public and scientists.

"Graduate students already harbor a desire to share their passion for science," Teigler says. "SITN taps that enthusiasm, giving students varied outlets to communicate science that match their interests."

A decade of growth


A young participant peers down the microscope at zebrafish larvae at Science in the News' Model Organism Zoo at the 2011 Cambridge Science Festival. The exhibit explores fundamental genetic concepts of genotype and phenotype with the help of SITN volunteer "zoo handlers" and a selection of wild-type larvae and mutants with striking visual phenotypes

SITN first started as and continues to hold a free, public lecture series each fall at which teams of three graduate students give two-hour, interactive talks on broad scientific topics recently covered in the media. Slenn reports audience sizes currently range from 150 to 250 people per lecture, with about 30 attending post-lecture tours of the medical school's labs. In addition, SITN provides a biweekly e-newsletter, the SITN Flash, written and edited by students.

In 2009, SITN expanded its effort to include participation in the Cambridge Science Festival, high-school outreach, and its own Science Café, Science by the Pint.

"Providing varied programming gives eager SITN volunteers a chance to share their love of science in a manner of their choosing," Teigler says, "but it also attracts and engages audience members of different ages, interests and backgrounds."

Motivated audience

Some audience members, like Michael Shapiro, say they attend SITN lectures for professional development.

"I am a mathematician by training and a mathematical biologist by trade. That means that my general biological education is full of holes and makes the SITN talks ideal for me," Shapiro explains. "They start at a very elementary level and almost always teach me something I didn't know."

Many participants are educators who want to stay current with cutting-edge science to bring back to their classrooms, provide their students with examples of early-career researchers and receive professional-development credits.

High school biology teacher Mary Ann Scheiner uses SITN's newsletter in her classes. "Most of my students don't really know what scientific research is. It's great when I can find something to catch their interest – and they realize that they could be doing something like that in just a few more years," Scheiner says.

Lecture attendee James Yakura lauds the graduate students' motivation and enthusiasm: "The lectures are timely and understandable by anyone who has an interest in the topic, the instructors are knowledgeable and radiate excitement for their work, and the times are convenient to those of us with day jobs."

Initiative rewarded

Throughout the opening Carnival Day of the 2009 Cambridge Science Festival, an all-ages audience filed by and stood in line to meet and greet a "zoo" of the major invertebrate model research organisms -- including bacterial biofilms, plants, yeast, slime mold, worms, fruit flies, zebrafish larvae and mammalian cells -- and their scientist "zoo handlers" at the Science in the News Model Organism Zoo. 

SITN offers volunteers autonomy to start new initiatives with the organization's support, explains co-director Slenn, who developed Science by the Pint, the SITN science café, at which scientists give brief introductions to their research and answer attendees' questions about their work and the life of a scientist while mingling at a bar.

Middle school biology teacher Mike Hansen says he attends Science by the Pint to "stay abreast with what is happening on the front lines of science."

The events "allow me to be connected with researchers who I can hold up as exemplars to my students, as well as providing an excuse for a good pint or two," Hansen says. "The information I get at these get-togethers deepens my knowledge and provides relevancy to material that is part of my curriculum – and it's a fun time."

Slenn's interest in reaching out to a broader, adult audience comes from personal experience.

"I come from a town of blue-collar workers, teachers and a few businessmen, and I wanted to share the excitement of science with people who may not enjoy the lecture format," she says. "Talking to the public about my work reminds me of what excited me in the first place and helps me focus on big picture implications of my research."

Today, 80 graduate students participate in one or more programs annually. Teigler says the most-cited reason for participation remains the satisfaction of applying specialized scientific training to serve others and give back to the community that supports the work. "However, SITN volunteers also gain practical benefits from the focus on high-quality oral and written science communication," he says, "which provides useful training and résumé-building opportunities for early-career researchers."

8 steps to starting your own Science in the News program

1. Recruit volunteers: You need a core group of dedicated, enthusiastic people with scientific expertise, plus a few contributing volunteers to staff specific efforts.
2. Focus: Start by choosing a single event you want to host or participate in that serves an unfulfilled need in your community. Expand from there, and don't be afraid to try more than once.
3. Know your audience: Design programs with a particular audience in mind. This will improve the quality and reception of the event as well as the effectiveness of advertising.
4. Secure funding: Programs like SITN do not require a lot of funding. Be creative: Ask for donations and apply for public service grants.
5. Advertise: Choose advertising strategies with your audience in mind, and capitalize on joint advertising with other groups or events. Collect data to guide future advertising decisions.
6. Quality control: Determining how to evaluate, maintain and enhance program quality is the secret to long-term success. Ask for details on SITN's quality-control measures and the Science Presentation as a Performing Art course.
7. Collect data: Design surveys and other metrics to gauge the impact and effectiveness of your programs. This will spur continued development in Steps 1 – 6. As you establish your program, don't forget to keep track of your volunteer alumni as well.
8. Contact SITN: SITN has more than a decade of experience implementing public outreach programs and is happy to share successes, failures and insider tips. Start the conversation by emailing

Recently, in collaboration with Harvard science faculty members and Nancy Houfek of the American Repertory Theater, SITN has established a graduate-level short course called Science Presentation as a Performing Art.

Houfek distills theater techniques that aid effective science communication in an interactive workshop for faculty and staff members, postdoctoral researchers and students. Graduate students who take the course for academic credit have small-group follow-up sessions with science faculty members to hone the delivery of their presentations.

A good example

When students at Yale University's chapter of Scientists and Engineers for America heard of SITN's program, they decided to start their own lecture series, which they launched this spring.

"We were impressed by [SITN's] scope, longevity and the level of community involvement they were able to achieve," says Yale SEA chapter President Elizabeth Winograd-Cort. "These are our goals as well, and we had been looking for an effective way to communicate important and often controversial scientific breakthroughs to the New Haven community."

The Yale students took the SITN concept and ran with it, she says.

"We realized that it was not possible or desirable to import the Harvard program wholesale.There are infrastructure disparities between the Harvard group and ours, the differences between Boston and New Haven, and [our] mission, which leads us in a more policy-oriented direction," Winograd-Cort explains. "We adopted a one-hour-long format and chose presentation topics not only because they are interesting but because of surrounding controversy, misunderstanding and lawmaking activity.We want our audiences to be better informed in order to make a difference themselves, either by writing to their representatives, by voting or by raising community consciousness."

Already, participants say, the Yale version of SITN has had a measurable impact.

Communicating Science

Communicating science is a top priority for the ASBMB Public Affairs Advisory Committee. By working with Science in the News, the PAAC recognizes graduate students’ energy and passion for communicating science and aims to engage growing numbers of participants across the country — scientists and nonscientists — to talk about science and to enhance the public’s perceptions of scientists and the importance of our work. PAAC will continue to identify and explore effective sciencecommunication programs and initiatives, examples of which will be reported in future ASBMB Today features or in the SciComm section. In addition, an ASBMB symposium at the 2012 Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego will highlight science communication. We welcome your feedback on science communications issues at

—Lee Gehrke

"We've been invited to speak to New Haven high school students in summer programs and during the school year this fall," Winograd-Cort says, "and we are dedicated to keeping our program running for years to come."

Winograd-Cort insists that collaboration between the Yale and Harvard groups ensured success of the fledgling program: "Harvard's SITN program gave us all kinds of support, from outlining where they spend their money to giving us funds to obtain and distribute advertising postcards. Ultimately, it was the knowledge that something like SITN existed that made us believe we could pull off such an undertaking."

To read more about SITN and find out how you might start an outreach program in your own community, visit

SITN_Morgan_ThompsonMorgan Thompson is a graduate student at Harvard Medical School and served as co-director of Science in the News for two years beginning in January 2008.

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