November 2013

‘You hear the screech of rubber hitting the road’

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Host it, and they will come.
That’s what the University of Missouri bet on when it hosted a regional career symposium focused on science outreach and communication in September.
More than 125 people registered for the one-day event, co-sponsored and co-organized by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and more than 40 others were turned away due to space limitations. The vast majority of attendees were graduate students, but postdoctoral fellows, faculty members and science-communication professionals also were present. Attendees came from 19 institutions in 12 states, mostly from the Midwest but also New York, New Jersey and D.C.
“The fact that people came from so many places is really encouraging,” said ASBMB member Bruce McClure, a professor of biochemistry at MU who helped organize the symposium. “It really speaks to how much science outreach resonates as something students and postdocs want to embrace as part of their life. That’s exciting.”
That is certainly true for Denise Leonard, a postdoctoral fellow from Washington University in St. Louis who attended the symposium. “I love science outreach. I really enjoy talking to people about the science that I do and how they can become involved in science. I’m looking for career-development opportunities that will help me grow within the science outreach and communication area,” Leonard said.
Matt Windsor, a postdoctoral fellow from Vanderbilt University, attended for similar reasons. “I like communicating. I like trying to explain what I do,” said Windsor, who is particularly interested in public policy. “That’s what I hope to do with the rest of my career.”

Hannah Alexander with Monica Metzler and Morgan Thompson
Hannah Alexander and two speakers, Monica Metzler and Morgan Thompson.

The symposium
The science outreach and communication symposium was the idea of Hannah Alexander, adjunct professor of biological sciences at MU and a member of the ASBMB’s Public Outreach Committee.
When approached about organizing a regional ASBMB career symposium at MU, Alexander knew she wanted to do something different.
“Rather than doing a traditional how-to-get-an-academic/industry-job symposium, I wanted to focus on skills that all students and postdocs need to develop to be successful in any scientific career – namely, the ability to write and communicate science effectively, both professionally and to a lay audience,” Alexander said.
Alexander found wide support for her idea on campus. She secured funding and organizing manpower from several academic departments, including biochemistry, biological sciences, and physics and astronomy, as well as several campuswide programs, including MU’s Science Communication Network, the Chancellor’s Distinguished Visitors Program and Mizzou Advantage.
The symposium included sessions on communicating science to audiences from kindergarten through college, tips and tricks for effective science communication, and the role of science and outreach in different scientific careers. It also included a keynote talk by Karen Cone, program director for the National Science Foundation, who spoke about science communication and outreach as they relate to the NSF’s broader impacts requirement on grant applications.
Attendees also heard from individuals implementing outreach programs. Geoff Hunt, public outreach coordinator for the ASBMB and co-organizer of the symposium, shared information about the society’s outreach committee and a forthcoming online science-communication course. Julie and Billy Hudson from Vanderbilt University gave a passionate talk about their outreach to rural communities through the Aspirnaut Initiative. The symposium also featured two of the winning teams of the NSF’s Graduate Education Challenge: Eric Hamilton and Melanie Bauer from Washington University in St. Louis and Elyse Aurbach and Katherine Prater from the University of Michigan.
The latter presentations were McClure’s favorites.
“In those talks, you hear the screech of rubber hitting the road,” said McClure. “Those students shared not only their experience with conceiving and executing projects but also the reality of doing it within the confines of their institutions. Giving them the opportunity to share that directly with other graduate students and postdocs is a job well done.”
The symposium also featured 18 posters showcasing the attendees’ innovative programs for science outreach at their own colleges and universities. All of the posters are available on the meeting’s website.
According to evaluations and informal feedback from attendees, learning about current programs and networking with others were the best aspects of the symposium. Many attendees said they would have liked to have had even more time for networking and sharing ideas and suggested that future symposia include informal networking sessions and hands-on workshops.
“People enjoyed and were excited by the realization that so many others share their enthusiasm for outreach and communication. That was clear from the registration and from the buzz at the breaks and poster sessions,” Alexander said.
Attendee Denise Leonard said she “absolutely loved” the event. “I don’t think I’ve laughed this much at a conference. It was just so great to interact with so many other graduate students as well as postdocs. It seems like there is such a big need for a bunch of us to get together and talk about our interests.”

Eric Hamilton and Melanie Bauer
Eric Hamilton and Melanie Bauer.

A role for professional societies
Alexander said the symposium’s focus on science outreach and communication contributed to the regional turnout.
“The topic is very relevant to students and postdocs while they consider continuing careers. Yet it retained the traditional career-meeting aspect and thus attracted some people who were not interested in science outreach only,” Alexander said.
The ASBMB’s support also had a lot to do with it, McClure said. “Just having ASBMB in the name gave it some cachet.”
Providing training on science outreach and communication, Hunt said, is a service that professional societies like the ASBMB can do for their members in addition to publishing scientific journals and holding scientific meetings.
“People are really looking to professional societies for professional development and career-training opportunities. They want jobs, but they don’t know how to get them. That’s our role: to facilitate their professional development,” Hunt said. “Hopefully not too subtly, we were able to hit participants over the head with the idea that science outreach and communication underlies a lot of different career opportunities, whether or not they end up staying in the lab.”
As for Alexander, she hopes other universities will follow suit.
“We hope that our experience will encourage similar regional meetings in other parts of the country and that regional communication networks will continue to grow and interact with each other,” she said.

Melody KrollMelody Kroll ( is senior information specialist for the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri.

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