ComSciCon-Va Tech 2020 Provided Participants with Information, Practice

On the far left stands a female dressed in black with long curly brown hair. Her title slide, reading "Connecting 21st Century Information to Stone-Age Brains: Numbers, Uncertainty, Surprise, and More", identifies her as Dr. Regina Nuzzo.
Dr. Regina Nuzzo served as keynote speaker for ComSciCon-Va Tech 2020. Photo credit: Alexandra Freeze.

ComSciCon-Va Tech 2020 is behind us, and we want to thank and congratulate members of the new communicating science student club who served as the organizing committee for the 2-day event. Co-chairs Susan Chen and Stephanie Edwards Compton headed up a committee that included Amrita Chakraborty, Grace Davis, Rathsara Herath, Toria Herd, Angelina Hargrove, Anza Mitchell, Tanya Mitropoulos, Mostafa Mohammed, Claudia Perez, Chandani Shrestha, Kalyn Specht, and Yezi Yang.

Statistician and journalist Dr. Regina Nuzzo served as keynote speaker for the event, presenting “Connecting 21st-Century Information to Stone-Age Brains: Numbers, Uncertainty, Surprise, and More,” Thursday evening, February 27, in the Fralin Auditorium. Her talk is available here.

ComSciCon-Va Tech 2020 workshops were held morning and afternoon on February 28, with about 75 participants dividing themselves among three concurrent sessions. Co-chairs Compton and Chen kicked off the day with a description of their focus on inclusion, diversity, and accessibility in planning the event. The use of closed captions in all presentations, providing an opportunity for participants to request names and pronouns for their nametags, setting up a nursing room, announcing the locations of both binary and non-binary restrooms, using accessible meeting rooms, and thanking those who lived on the land before the founding of Virginia Tech all were part of their efforts.

The morning session included three workshops:

  • “Disseminating Your Research Through Social Media and Beyond” (presenters: Ubadah Sabbagh, Kelly Scarff, and Dr. Nicholas Caruso)
  • “Inclusive STEAM Communication” (presenter: Christa Miller)
  • “Your Research in a Nutshell” (presenters: Maddy Grupper and Grace Davis)

The afternoon session’s three workshops included:

  • “Communicating Science Through the Arts” (presenters: Steven T. Licardi, George Hardebeck, and Alex Freeze)
  • “Communicating Science Through Policy and Advocacy: A Panel Discussion” (presenters: Dr. ConSandra McNeil, Dr. Brian Langlos, Dr. Todd Schenk, Dr. John Nemeth, Dr. Taylor Scott, and Dr. Beth Long)
  • “Write-a-Thon: Finding the Story in Your Science” (presenter: Dr. Katie Burke)

ComSciCon-Va Tech 2020 was funded in part by a grant from 4-VA, and we are pleased to be able to make available to others, at Virginia Tech and beyond, information from each session. Note-takers were assigned to each workshop or panel to capture some of the discussion and tips. We hope you find the ComSciCon-Va Tech 2020 session summaries useful:

“Disseminating Research through Social Media and Beyond” panel

Panelists: Ubadah Sabbagh, Dr. Nicholas Caruso, Kelly Scarff

Panelists from the Virginia Tech community spoke of their experiences communicating their research and broader scientific messages beyond the academic community, and they shared advice to the graduate student audience on how to do so effectively. They described how to manage the content of a researcher’s message such that it resonates with the general public, especially via bringing personhood and emotion to one’s science story. They also explained ways in which to communicate this message through social media and to pitch to media outlets, pointing in particular to online resources for pitching articles and stories.

Some of the resources recommended by panelists included The OpEd Project, The Open Notebook, Massive Science, and Upwork. When asked who they like to follow on Twitter, these names came up: Anne Hilborn @AnneWHilborn; Katie Mack @AstroKatie; Science Policy, Explained @DukeSciPol; Efra Rivera-Serrano @NakedCapsid; Sarah McAnulty @SarahMackAttack; Christine Liu @christineliuart. Also mentioned was a new podcast, Big Lick of Science, created by Virginia Tech graduate students on the Roanoke campus.

(summary by Tanya Mitropoulos and Kate Hennion)

“Inclusive STEAM Communication” presentation

Session presenter Christa Miller encouraged participants to “look in, look up, and look out” to improve their science communication in an inclusive way. Starting with “looking in,” participants were encouraged to face their imposter syndrome head on by watching how we think, talking to others, and feeling okay not knowing all the answers. As we “look up,” we need to realize that our audience is diverse, and by designing our communication for the edges rather than just the abled, we include everyone from the beginning. Christa gave tips on how to design our communication by focusing on the main point and a “why care” statement while encouraging different types of brainstorming for presentations.

Built into this discussion were 5 big tips on increasing accessibility in presentations:

  1. Use headings.
  2. Use a little bit of big text.
  3. Check your color contrast.
  4. Write and speak image descriptions.
  5. Use clean, readable URL links.

To finish up the workshop, Martina Svyantek and Stephanie Edwards Compton taught participants how to “look out” by showing how we can use Twitter and Instagram in an accessible way.

(summary by Stephanie Edwards Compton)

“Your Research in a Nutshell” workshop

 This session challenged participants to distill their research into a succinct (~60-90-seconds) talk that is accessible to non-scientific audiences. Workshop leaders, Maddy Grupper and Grace Davis, led students through a series of interactive thought exercises and games to think about their research from a different angle, including creating a hook to draw people in based on a physical sensation, story, or emotion that their research evokes; descriptions of the who, what, and how involved in their research; and a particular emphasis on why their work is important. Each activity was facilitated by practice and feedback from fellow students representing a diverse set of disciplines, as well as time for reflection and note taking—all of which culminated in a rough draft of a description of their research, perfect to share with a grant reviewer, future employer, fellow graduate student, or even their best friend’s mom. At the end of the session, students practiced their talks in smaller groups and received feedback from their audience on their clarity, engagement, and professionalism.

Overall, students valued the opportunity to think about their research outside of the niche box they have often created for themselves in their studies. They commented frequently that while it was uncomfortable, it was helpful to consider and articulate answers to questions like “Who does your research involve?” and “Why is it important to you?”  and begin to think about how those answers could be used to connect with individuals outside of their discipline. It also seemed helpful for them to receive feedback from their peers, as often hearing the listener’s interpretation of their answer helped them learn whether they were conveying what they hoped to convey. By the end of the workshop, participants had created, practiced, and received a wealth of feedback on the description of their research, which will ultimately help them to succinctly communicate (with flare!) what they do and why it’s important whenever the opportunity arises.

(summary by Toria Herd)

“Communicating Science Through the Arts” panel and workshop

This session involved using different art forms to display science to broad audiences. We had three amazing speakers who all used different forms of art within their field. Each speaker gave a 15-minute presentation, which was followed by a 30-minute period for questions from the audience. After the allotted time for questions, the session was split into three groups, with each speaker leading one group to dive into that speaker’s form of art. They each explained how they used their art form to communicate their science and how that could be applied to other science fields.

Alex Freeze, a trained wildlife biologist, talked about her work using photography to bring awareness to species in danger of losing their environment, such as the Florida Panther, or to help species such as bats, with reputations that have become villainized. Her breakout session involved participants coming up with five photos that capture– without having to use captions–their work and why their work is important.

George Hardebeck, who is an immersive media artist, works with scientists to create community experiences that display scientific work. He spoke about examples of his work, such as working with paleontologists to create museum displays. These museum displays involved interactive models for museum goers to have a more immersive experience. His breakout session involved speaking with students about their research and exploring how interactive displays could be created to explain areas of the students’ research.

Steven Licardi is a social worker who uses spoken poetry and performance to bring awareness to mental health and mental illness and to dismantle stigma that is still found around these areas. He discussed his own experiences with mental health as a child and how that affected his decision to go into his field and performed some of his beautiful spoken poetry. His breakout session involved using blackout poetry, in which sentences or words are blacked out from a document to create a poem. He explained how blackout poetry could be used for scientific fields other than mental health and illness.

(summary by Grace Davis)

“Communicating Science Through Policy and Advocacy: A Panel Discussion”

The goal of this panel was to introduce students to professionals who are using their passion for science in careers related to policy and advocacy work. Through an interactive discussion format, students heard from an expert panel—including Dr. ConSandra McNeil, an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, Dr. Brian Langloss, lead policy analyst for, Dr. Todd Schenk, Assistant Professor in the Urban Affairs and Planning Program of the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech, Dr. Taylor Scott, Associate Director of the Research to Policy Collaboration team, and Dr. Beth Long, co-director of communications for the National Prevention Science Coalition—on how to be involved in translating basic science research to policy, within academia and outside of it. Panelists discussed how their career promotes the progress of science while supporting translational research. Discussion included efforts to create accessible science, advocacy centered around the science of particular social issues, engaging the academy as a policymaker and vice versa, science communication skills and how they can be built during graduate studies, and generally how students can use their scientific toolbox outside the walls of academia and in the world of policy.

We were thrilled and honored to host such impressive professionals and are grateful that they gave their time to expand students’ knowledge of opportunities to use science communication skills and be involved in the application process of the science they study after post-doctoral studies. After the panel session, students had an opportunity to practice giving a 2-minute “pitch” of their scientific niche and how it could be used to move policy efforts forward. The catch, though, was that they had to tailor it to specific audiences—a fellow graduate student, a first date, a high school science class, a grant reviewer, and a policy official. We then debriefed how they articulated their research differently depending on the audience, including the use of jargon and emotion. Overall, I believe students took away the message that as academics, we are doing important and meaningful work, but it becomes most important and meaningful when it is properly disseminated for public thought and use. There are so many benefits of learning to better communicate science, including collaboration, funding opportunities, effecting change through policy, and communicating “the why” to the general public. This session demonstrated that bridging the gap between academia and the public sphere is not only a goal worth pursuing, but there are real, practical ways to pursue it.

(summary by Toria Herd)

“Write-a-Thon: Finding the Story in Your Science” workshop

Dr. Katie Burke, digital editor for American Scientist, led a workshop on writing about scientific research such that the story behind the research shines through and grabs the reader. She likened the format of such an article to that of a traditional story arc, along with the inclusion of traditional story elements like setting, conflict, character, and the 5 W’s, emphasizing that people enjoy reading stories and that science can read like a story. She encourages science writers to bring characters and personality back into their writing and to communicate the significance of the work. That significance can be used in writing as a transition to the underlying scientific research. Dr. Burke provided information about and examples of how to write “ledes” and “nut grafs,” the beginning and transitional paragraphs of a story.

Participants spent time on writing and receiving feedback from Dr. Burke and other respondents.

Resources provided by Dr. Burke included

She also recommended the following books:

  • The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital Age
  • The Science Writers’ Investigative Reporting Handbook: A Beginners’ Guide to Investigations
  • The Science Writers’ Essay Handbook: How to Craft Compelling True Stories in any Medium

(summary by Tanya Mitropoulos)

Center for Communicating Science student intern Kate Hennion contributed to this piece.

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