Science communication part 3 – should I do it? if so, how?

As a scientist you may ask yourself, Science communication, should I do it?  Yes!  Science communication has multiple benefits:

1)  It increases scientific literacy.  More explicitly, it garners interest for your particular field and explains why it’s important.  Remember, science is often supported via government grants or kind benefactors.  Science communication is voter education.
2)  It makes you better scientist.  Science communication forces you to distill your message to the protein and clarify your own thinking.
3)  Other scientists need to know what you’re doing!  Science communication gets your science out of your lab and into someone else’s.  As Clara Chaisson points out, Science communication fosters better communication among scientists too!
4)  Science communication is your most important tool for outreach, which helps you get jobs and funding.  But you should also do it because it’s part of your scientific philosophy!
5)  It exposes you.  Yes, exposure is terrifying, but it is necessary.  As much as we want to romanticize the hermit scientist cloistered in the lab, the market for jobs, funding, and peer-recognition relies somewhat on marketing yourself.

The next question is, How do I do it?  Write a book?  Give a tweet?  Give a lecture?  Dance a jig?  Yes!  Another excellent point by Clara, Science communication comes in many forms, big (for example, books) and small (for example, tweets). Every level of science communication can be important, so if you are intimidated or worried about how much time it’s going to take, start out small.   

Below are suggestions for getting your science out there.  If you have other suggestions please let me know in the comments and I’ll update the blog and credit you with thanks!


Write a Letter to the Editor
Happy news!  Newspapers still exist! Some even in the analogue form!  Letters to the Editors are typically brief (~200 words) and in response to a previously written article in that newspaper or journal.  This can be a way to get your feet wet.  Go ahead!  Give it a try!

Write an Op-ed
Op-ed means ‘opposite the editorial page’ and is an unsolicited opinion piece you submit vs. the editorials which are written by staff columnists.  These are longer than Letters to the Editor and typically 750 – 1000. 

Start a blog
Blogs are free-form and are as easy to update as your Facebook account.  Sites like WordPress and Blogger will host your blog for free and are extremely user friendly with a lot of options for displaying your content with many tutorials online.  I started my blog to talk about the science I wanted to talk about.  But blogs can take a lot of time and effort.  Not enough time to start and maintain your own blog?  Be a contributor to a blog.  Some group blogs I enjoy include DeepSeaNews (my favorite article is why mermaids can’t exist ) and Southern Fried Science (great freakin’ title!).  Try to find one in your area of expertise.   

Want to Freelance?
Maybe you want to Freelance?  This means you write articles for targeted journals/newspapers/websites either on assignment (i.e., you have a contract to do the work) or you submit the work on spec (i.e., you write the piece and submit it to an editor on speculation).  The essay I recently wrote for the local newspaper was written on-spec.  Take a gander at what Sarah White’s sage advice on freelancing.  Particularly, that you should get paid for it because freelancing ain’t free.

Write a book
David George Haskell walked into Shakerag Hollow in Tennessee, sat down on a rock and observed a patch of the forest floor.  He had a notebook, a hand lens and his senses.  He visited this spot again and again for one year.  Then he wrote The Forest Unseen.  Then he got himself nominated for a Pulitzer.  Sounds simple, but it took him ten years to write the book.  But the idea that the simple act of observation, the first step of the scientific method, could serve as the foundation for a book is inspiring!  Many scientists have written great science books.  Rachel Carson.  Carl Safina.  E.O. Wilson.  Are you next? 

Social media
Social media makes me want to jump into a tornado of angry claw hammers (not the docile ones) dressed as a nine-penny nail.  There’s so much to keep up with.  So instead of writing about it, I re-direct you to marine ecologist Jarrett Byrnes’ post on the matter.  He says things gooder than me do (and I’m busy sewing together this Nail costume).  I will repeat this line from his post, If you are not curating your online identity, someone or something else is doing it for youIn other words, that angry rant you posted years ago about how putting fruit, particularly raisins, in baked goods is abhorrent and wrong (and it is) is still there.  And it can be found by your mama, your boss, and that woman in another lab that you’ve been trying to work up the courage to ask out (just do it already!). With the internet it’s one click and that’s it.  It’s there forever.    


Maybe you don’t want to write but instead express yourself in other ways.  Here are some ideas.

Tell a story about your science
If you’re approached by someone who wants to hear your story, say a freelance writer, don’t be shy!  If you’re really brave, you can tell the story behind your science yourself.  I was recently introduced to The Story Collider.  Story Collider is phenomenal.  The stories are told by scientists and show them as humans with real emotions.  You’ll laugh.  You’ll cry.  You’ll scratch your head.  Imagine the Moth Radio Hour for scientists.  

Guest lecture at local schools
Schools sometimes receive small educational-improvement grants to support guest speakers.  Regardless, biology clubs and science classrooms love guest speakers, especially if you’re a real-live scientist!  I spent two days this month talking to group of middle-schoolers about ocean acidification.  The kids loved sampling the pH of household solutions (did you know milk is slightly acidic at 6.5 pH?) and role-playing chemical reactions.  Lobsters, microscopes, chemistry, and role playing are all things I’ve brought into classrooms to communicate science.  The students usually respond well to them all.  Remember, these are future voters and potentially scientists!

Professor Johnson is learnin' you some ocean chemistry.
Professor Johnson is learnin’ you some ocean chemistry.

Rap or sing or make a music video
Here is a great site for math and science raps and songs.  And here’s a video that tickles me featuring a friend of mine.

Radio broadcast/podcast
In my opinion, Radiolab is one of the best example of this.  If you’re interested in getting into this you might consider participating in the Transom workshops.

Sites like YouTube and Vimeo are great repositories for science blogs.  And they are blowing up!  One of my favorites is Emily Graslie’s video blog The Brain Scoop.  It is friggin’ awesome! And her enthusiasm for natural history great!  I am jealous of her skills and ability and ease of explaining science.  In fact, it is from her that I learned the difference between antlers and horns.  I might have binge watched most them instead of writing a proposal.

In the marine ecology community is Beneath the Waves , a wonderful festival of marine science videos that is shown around the world (not just on the net!).  I’m simply thrilled with what they’ve done.  Take a look and maybe submit a video!  Or find such a festival in your discipline.  Or start your own festival!    

On that note, there is a new ebook, The Scientist Videographer by Karen McKee, a coastal ecologist on videography for scientists.  I haven’t read the book yet, but Karen is a great scientist and communicator so it’s worth a read.  It’s only available on Apple platforms at the moment.  I know, I know.  Me too.   

Dance your Ph.D. I’m just saying. 

Perform a play
Suitcase theater by Beth Nixon about her dad (a marine biologist), crabs, and dinosaurs.  I saw this performance.  Moving, powerful and human.  I wish I could show it to you.  Go see it if you can.  Maybe I will see one of your shows soon? 

Comic books?  Street performances?  Smoke signals?  Crocheting?  Be creative!
Thank you, Clara Chaisson (a science-communication graduate student at Boston University) for your helpful comments and contributions to this blog post.  Check out Clara’s blog.  Do it now!


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