Interested in a SciComm Career? Read on!

This image shows a photo of a woman in a winter cap and the words "Scientists can be powerful agents of change."
COMPASS was among the science communication organizations represented in the ComSciCon-UVA panel on SciComm careers. Image from COMPASS website.

At the Center for Communicating Science, we often interact with researchers who want to communicate more effectively. But increasingly we also meet students and others who are exploring the possibility of a career in science communication. The recent ComSciCon-UVA, organized by University of Virginia graduate students and held online, provided a panel on just that topic, and our undergraduate student intern Sarah Propst has a detailed report. If you’ve considered a career in science communication, you’ll want to learn what the experts gathered for this panel have to say!

About the Panelists

Lori Arguelles is director of policy engagement at COMPASS, an organization with a mission to “champion, connect, and support diverse scientist leaders to improve the well-being of people and nature.” She is passionate about connecting scientists to policymakers and the public. She began her career as a radio reporter and has held a wide range of communication positions across her career.

Aneri Pattani works for the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Spotlight PA as an investigative health reporter. Her stories focus on the introduction of health policies and their effects and reception by the public. She is currently covering the policy responses to COVID-19. Additionally, she is interested in mental health and substance abuse.

Dr. Chloe Poston is the director of strategic initiatives for the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity at Brown University. She holds a Ph.D. in chemistry from Brown University, where she focused on bioanalytical chemistry. After working briefly as a researcher, she realized her long-term interest was diversity and inclusion in research.

The Panelists’ Tips on Careers in Science Communication

How do you communicate science to people who have a strong distrust for science and scientists?

There is not an easy answer to this question. Arguelles acknowledges that science has become politicized and there is a need to rebuild trust in our leadership. Online media has made it much harder for the average person to know fact from fiction. Scientists and policy makers need to work with behavioral sociologists to understand how the barriers created by the internet arose so quickly and what can be done to rebuild trust.

From a journalist’s point of view, Pattani says it is important to approach others as a student. If you want people to learn from you, you also need to be willing learn from them. To have a productive interaction, both sides need to understand the constraints of both experiences and/or jobs.

Quick Tips to Gain Trust:

  • Work with behavioral sociologists to understand how to overcome barriers created by the spread of misinformation on the internet.
  • Be willing to approach the situation as a student eager to learn.

What is important to keep in mind when communicating to a non-technical audience?

Pattani believes it is important to be straightforward about your research. Research is a process, and being honest about what you do and do not yet know does not take away from your findings. Whether you’re a journalist or talking with a journalist, make sure you know how the research can be or is misinterpreted so that such misinterpretations can be avoided.

Arguelles’ advice is to know your audience. This is a big theme in science communication, she says. When trying to influence policy, remember that policy makers and lawyers are likely not going to be an expert in your field. Put points in a way that makes them easy to understand, and avoid using jargon. When communicating to non-technical audiences, it’s also important to lead with an easy-to-understand headline. Repeat or emphasize the main points you are trying to make.

Arguelles says, “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.”

Quick Tips to Communicate to A Non-Technical Audience:

  • Be straight forward and honest about your research. What do you know? And what do not yet know?
  • Know your audience. De-jargonize and make your points easy to understand. COMPASS has a tool called “The Message Box” that will help translate your work for your chosen audience.
  • Repeat or emphasize the main points you are trying to make 

What are some activities to help develop science communication skills?

Arguelles says, “Practice makes better.” Practice will not make you perfect, but it will make you better. To add onto that, Pattani says talking to family and friends about your work is a good way to practice. What are the three main points you’d bring up to them? If you can have casual conversation about your work, you can speak to the public about it. Additionally, talking to the media is another good way to get better at communicating, and you should take advantage of any opportunities you have.

Quick Tips to Develop Your Skills:

  • Practice, practice, practice!
  • Talk to your friends and family.
  • Talk to the media.

How do you present academic research to a company?

Arguelles’ advice is to watch a few episodes of Shark Tank. A company is going to care about the bottom line. You need to ask yourself:

  • Why I am I presenting my research?
  • What value would I bring to the company?

What advice would you give to science and engineering students interested in exploring a science communication career path?

Poston’s advice is to get as much experience with writing as possible. Look into the professional societies at your school, and see what opportunities there are for writing for them. Don’t worry if it is not science writing, just build up your portfolio. Find places where you can volunteer and do outreach; if you can’t explain science to children, you can’t explain it to the public. Additionally, Pattani says fellowships and freelancing are good ways to gain experience. Science writing conferences are also a way to meet recruiters and people with similar backgrounds. Arguelles points out that many universities offer science communication classes.

Quick Tips on Exploring Careers in Science Communication:

  • Write as much as possible. Build your portfolio.
  • Volunteer for outreach opportunities.
  • Look for fellowships.
  • Try freelancing.
  • Take science communication classes. 

What job title should we put into a search engine when looking for that first job?

Arguelles says that “Technical Writer” is often used, especially in government; there are lots of science communication opportunities on Capitol Hill. Pattani and Poston agree that it’s important to look into the specific companies or organizations you are interested in instead of using a third-party search site. Poston says that you should only use third-party sites as a starting point, and you should always check the organization directly to make sure the job is still available.

What challenges did you face when entering the science communication field and/or what challenges are you still facing?

All three panelists agreed that they have seen and/or experienced sexism, ageism, and racism. Poston says that some people may not believe in your ability as a scientist. Her advice is to remember that it is “not your job to change people”; you just need to focus on creating high quality work. Pattani agrees, adding that you can also use people’s assumptions that you aren’t qualified to your advantage—people may let their guard down. Pattani says that you need to be able to recognize your blind spots as well as your skills.

Poston also says there is a negative stigma surrounding researchers becoming communicators. It is sometimes hard to navigate because some people try to diminish the work of a science communicator. Remember, she advises, that both researchers and communicators are important.

How has your background impacted your career in science communication?

Your culture, the way you were raised, and your life experience all influence the way you look at things and the way you work, the panelists agree. For example, a study on skin lightening products caught Pattani’s eye, as that’s a product used in the Indian community; no one else pitched the topic because it did not resonate with them. As Poston looks at it, your background will dictate your interests, which will create opportunities for representation. When sharing information, draw on the ways your culture traditionally communicates (e.g., storytelling or direct), as there is value in diverse perspectives. Arguelles’ career was largely inspired by her deep roots in Santa Barbara and her love for the ocean; she believes it is important to look at where your inspiration comes from because your experiences “fundamentally inform how you look at things.”

How can language barriers be overcome in science communication?

Pattani has interviewed people from all over the world, and typically their English is “okay,” she says. If the researcher to be interviewed is at a university, a translator may be provided. In general, however, she says that language barriers have not proven to be a huge issue. The content of the research is typically more important than the language it is being said in.

Who are your role models?

Poston’s role model is Dr. Knatokie Ford, who created her own company, worked at the White House during the Obama Administration, and is a Ted Talk fellow. Ford strives to explain the importance of science to anyone, of any age, in any arena. Poston is inspired by Ford to be authentic to herself and to use her background as a scientist to share the importance of research.

Arguelles has many role models, including Dr. Sylvia Earle, who previously held the role as chief scientist for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Arguelles is inspired by Earle’s dedication to communicating science beyond the lab. Another role model is Dr. Kathy Sullivan, who is both an astronaut and aquanaut and who was the first American woman to walk in space and the first woman to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Pattani is inspired by Ed Yong of The Atlantic, whom she believes to have a wholistic view of journalism.

How much additional research goes into the pieces you write?

Pattani says in journalism it depends largely on the editor, the outlet, and the timeframe. Sometimes you have weeks to do research and can spend a week calling 100+ people, a week going over budget and policy documents from the past 10 years, and a week writing. Other times, you only have time to interview two people.

Poston says in her job—specifically when writing for policy purposes—she has a lot of time to write but that space is the limiting factor. She is often tasked with condensing extensive research into a single paragraph. She may spend one to two weeks researching, so that she has a high level of understanding, and then several days drafting her report.

How can I get more confident sharing my researching and delivering content?

Once again, practice is the key. Poston suggests sharing your research with non-scientists, family, and friends. If they do not understand it, you need to work on your delivery. Pattani’s advice is to remind yourself that “you are more qualified than you think you are.” When a journalist approaches you, it’s because they’ve done research on you and think you are qualified. She also points out that most journalists want to be helpful. For ethical reasons, most journalists cannot share a draft of their story with you. Instead, ask them what their fact-checking process is. Be open to an additional phone call where the journalist can tell you the main points they included and ask if they  understood correctly.

Take home messages from the panel:

  • Arguelles: If you aren’t learning, you aren’t living.
  • Poston: If you want to work in science communication, start now; look for opportunities while you are still in school.
  • Pattani: There is a great need for science communicators. Don’t get intimidated by it. “Journalism is a profession of learning.”

Arguelles, Pattani, and Poston answered questions as part of the Careers in Science Communication Panel during ComSciCon-UVA. Graduate students at UVA visited Blacksburg in February to attend ComSciCon-VA Tech to participate, observe, and collect and discuss ideas with the VT planning committee as plans were being made for a similar set of workshops at UVA. The UVA event was postponed from May until mid-August by the pandemic and moved to an online format, in which members of the VT graduate student planning committee participated. The collaboration between the graduate student planning committees at Virginia Tech and UVA was supported by a 4-VA grant.

ComSciCon, a conference planned by graduate students for graduate students, is designed to empower early career researchers to communicate complex and technical concepts to broad and diverse audiences. Originally organized and hosted in 2014 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the “flagship” ComSciCon now serves students from across the United States and around the world and has extended its reach by allowing locally franchised workshops. The August event was the first ComSciCon for the University of Virginia; Virginia Tech held its first in March 2019 and second in February 2020.

By Sarah Propst, Center for Communicating Science student intern

 

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