July 2012

Meet ASBMB’s public outreach coordinator, Geoff Hunt

Photo of Geoff Hunt at a baseball stadium 
A lifelong baseball fan, Hunt is dedicated to visiting every major league stadium in the country. He’s hit 23 out of 30 so far. Photo courtesy of Hunt. 

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s science policy fellowship is meant to serve as a transition program for new Ph.D.s looking to put together a skill set that is different than what they learned in the lab. The yearlong program brings a fresh face into the society’s headquarters each year, and when the term ends the fellow heads out and, hopefully, moves up the professional ladder. Geoff Hunt, the society’s 2010–2011 fellow, didn’t head out at all, but he did move up.

Today, Hunt is the society’s public outreach coordinator, a role created early this year to help increase ASBMB’s involvement in science outreach and communication. “Science communication is changing,” Hunt says. “It is not just publishing in a peer-reviewed journal.”

Hunt is already hard at work. One major goal is to make an assessment of the state of outreach and communication efforts at ASBMB and across the country. He has been “researching current activities that are going on nationwide to see what’s already been done, to form partnerships and to make sure there are no redundancies.”

Hunt also seeks to facilitate new ways for ASBMB members to take part in outreach. One of the easiest ways for members to get involved is by judging science fairs at local schools, Hunt says. “Other ones take a little more effort to lower the activation energy to get people involved,” he says. “It takes a little more motivation to get started.”

Successful outreach to the public is dependent on effective communication of science. Today, science communication involves not only traditional research publicatons but also social media tools such as blogs and Twitter. Hunt says he, and the ASBMB as a whole, is committed to improving how scientists communicate their science.

There were two events at the society’s 2012 annual meeting in April in San Diego that highlighted the importance of science communication. Both of those events had estimated attendances of 200 people each, according to Hunt. One event, “Effectively Communicating Your Science,” was a panel seminar that included a Nobel laureate and representatives from National Public Radio, the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center and the Huffington Post. The other event, spearheaded by Hunt, was born from his desire “to do something different and informal” to get scientists talking. That was the “Brewing Science Tweet and Meet.” There, participants rubbed elbows and enjoyed libations with bloggers, journalists and professional communicators.

Hunt says he wanted to bring together good communicators of science and attendees who may have questions like “How do you do this? How do you find time? And how do you go about doing this with wide exposure?”

Communicating the importance of our research to the public will become essential as funding resources shrink. But why do we as scientists have difficulty doing so? “It is something that hasn’t been done,” Hunt says. “You’ve probably been discouraged. It is our generation who is becoming less so.”

But, he says, all segments of the scientific population can learn to share their science with the public. “Grad students and postdocs are more willing to get involved; established and tenured faculty might take more convincing to get more involved.” Plus, it may be helpful to older scientists, Hunt says, because “it helps you think about your research in a different way and increases collaboration.”

Hunt obtained his undergraduate degree in biochemistry from Cornell University, where he studied partitioning of fluorescent probes in lipid model membranes in the laboratory of Gerald Feigenson. He then pursued his Ph.D. at Princeton University, doing his thesis work in the lab of Jean Schwarzbauer, where he investigated the regulation of embryonic stem cell self-renewal and differentiation by fibronectin.

During his time as a graduate student, Hunt seized the opportunity to take classes beyond the typical research curriculum. He took some science policy classes and says this experience was “eye-opening.” “It showed me policy involves a mix of technical knowledge, personal skills and explaining broad technical issues to the public,” he says.

Photo of Geoff Hunt and others at karaoke 
This past spring, Hunt and ASBMB science policy fellow Julie McClure joined forces for competitive team karaoke in Washington, D.C.’s District Karaoke league. Photo courtesy of John Jacks. 

From that point on, he sought out more opportunities to shape science policy. Once he completed his dissertation, Hunt stayed at Princeton for a one-year postdoctoral position. Subsequently, he joined ASBMB as its science policy fellow and gained considerable experience on Capitol Hill. During the twice-annual Hill Day events, which bring ASBMB members to the Hill to talk to lawmakers about the importance of funding basic research, Hunt witnessed firsthand how necessary it is for scientists to become adept at communicating the value of their work.

“Whether you’re talking with a senator or your neighbor, being able to explain your science clearly is an increasingly critical and valuable skill for scientists to have,” he says. “What I love about my job is that I get to help you to get good at it.”

 

Pumtiwitt C. McCarthy (rancypc@od.nih.gov) is a research fellow in the NIH Pharmacology Research Associate Program of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.


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