Guest Blog

Integrating science communication training into an interdisciplinary program on atmospheric aerosols

A chemistry graduate student presenting a research talk would usually expect an audience from their close circle of chemistry colleagues studying a similar topic. However, when the research is about pollutants and chemical processes that affect air quality, climate, and health, the audience can draw in many more experts: chemists, engineers, and specialists in public health, computer modeling, geography, and policy.

 

In a UBC training program called CREATE-AAP (Collaborative Research and Training Experience – Atmospheric Aerosol Program), students learn to close the gap between researchers in a variety of areas who all study the particles in our atmosphere we call aerosols. The aim is for students in the program to communicate with scholars from outside their disciplines, and as a result, cultivate a broader understanding of the interrelatedness of concepts involving atmospheric aerosols, an integral skill required to tackle key environmental problems.

 

Some CREATE-AAP activities designed to give students opportunities to gain communication-focused competencies include:

  • an annual symposium to share research in poster sessions and research talks with guest speakers from industry, government, and academia;
  • an annual student seminar conference to present internship results and experiences that represent labs of other aerosol research groups at UBC;
  • a graduate-level seminar course (CHEM540D) and a bi-weekly journal club to read and discuss diverse journal literature in an interdisciplinary group; and
  • professional skills training workshops to enhance skills in public speaking, media communications, teaching, and project management.

These events regularly bring together students from up to six different departments at UBC.

 

As CREATE-AAP students take part in these activities, they exchange feedback on what works and what does not work in cross-discipline science communication. Take a scene in CHEM540D, the seminar course designed for the CREATE-AAP program’s graduate students. In a CHEM540D class, the audience lacks a common knowledge base of atmospheric chemistry, so a phrase such as “heterogeneous ice nucleation” has to be defined or it can lose the audience. Highly technical language is expected in a talk for chemistry colleagues or for scientific journals, but to an audience unfamiliar with the topic, technical knowledge can instead be introduced with clear visuals, logical flow, and adequate pacing. The challenge is to provide enough detail and depth without overwhelming their audience with jargon and acronyms.

 

When CREATE-AAP students practice adapting their language to a more general audience, they also learn to understand and relate perspectives from other disciplines into their own. For example, students studying the public health impacts around cookstove emissions in rural communities could relate to another student’s research focused on the mitigation perspective of the same topic. A geography student monitoring air pollution may collaborate with a chemistry student to analyze the composition and transport of pollutants. Learning to engage in interdisciplinary teams is a highly sought skill for employers in the environmental and health sectors.

 

Through exposure to other disciplines, CREATE-AAP students hone their interdisciplinary communication skills and underpin their expertise with a deeper appreciation of the range of perspectives on atmospheric aerosol research. When these students in chemistry, engineering, medicine, atmospheric sciences, or resource management walk into another research talk, they can all hope to see the relevance of each others’ works to their own studies and a better understanding of air quality, health, and climate.

 

bertram-1Allan Bertram is the Director of CREATE-AAP, an interdisciplinary atmospheric aerosol program funded through the NSERC CREATE program (2010-present). He is a professor in the Department of Chemistry at University British Columbia and serves as co-editor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics (2013 – present). He is also the 2016 winner of the Environment Division Research and Development Dima Award for distinguished contributions to research and/or development in the fields of environmental chemistry or environmental chemical engineering, while working in Canada. The research in his group focuses on the chemistry and physics of atmospheric particles and the role these particles play in urban air pollution, climate change and atmospheric chemistry.

 

maki HC photo-1Maki Sumitani was Program Coordinator for CREATE-AAP (2013-2016), and is a UBC Science alumna with a keen interest in science writing and communication.

 

Currently, Maki works with UBC Applied Science programs (engineering co-op, study abroad, and professional development) and is working towards certification in professional communication.

Wooing our future science communicators – an instructor’s journey (part 2)

By Elizabeth Scherman

** Check out part 1 here **

A funny thing happened on the way to my Writing for the Sciences class. The class, created to “woo” reluctant STEM students to write, didn’t fill. Ironically, I’d proven my theory: young future STEM students often balk at writing. However, the Academic Talent Development Program (ATDP) at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education did offer me an Analytical Writing class in its stead. I assigned many of the same types of writing assignments as I would have in the Writing for the Sciences class.

One of my high school-aged students – I’ll call him Arthur – took copious, almost painfully diagrammed notes of every class lecture. Like his classmates, he had been awarded entry into ATDP on his academic merit and motivation. I looked forward to reading his first essay. The second week of class, we did a timed write on the nature of villainy. Arthur froze. Not one single word made it onto the paper sitting before him. We met after class.

“Dr. Scherman,” he explained, “it’s not like doing math. With writing, there’s no right answer. I’m just going in circles trying out all of the possible solutions to the equation.”

ATDP students on their way to Doe Library.

ATDP students on their way to Doe Library.

Of course, there is no solution – because writing is not an equation. And Arthur is not alone. I called for STEM-bound students from my Analytical Writing class to share with me their past experiences and future fears about writing. I’ll let them speak for themselves:

From a future neurobiologist: “Writing about math is fairly simple because it’s logical. However, you can approach ‘English’ writing in so many ways that it’s difficult to fully know where to begin.”

From a future engineer: “Writing is supposed to be argumentative in nature, but we have no theorems or postulates to prove our claims.”

From a future coder: “In school and in the workplace, I fear that I will not be able to produce quality work in the given deadline.”

The last comment reflects a common thread: students squirm under deadlines and grade expectations. Arthur’s writing paralysis is not uncommon; perfect is often the enemy of the good. Many of my students confessed that they enjoy writing outside of school and away from the prying eyes of those who would assign grades and time limits.

“I will have to write more and more,” predicted one student. “This will be a challenge for me, to try not to be overwhelmed and stressed … also, I will have to learn to write faster.”

I gave my students permission – okay, I encouraged them – to write “terrible” first drafts (which were always comment-only) and to tackle in-class writes without the pressure of a grade. They received full points for trying. They did try. Lo and behold, much of their best writing was done under deadline in response to questions – “equations” – that do not have one correct answer.

When I told them this, they looked at me as if I’d gone round the bend.

Perhaps, I suggested, the correct answer to a writing equation is to do the best you can do in the time that you are given. Perhaps time constraints can be the very things that free us to err. And once we are allowed to err, the discovery begins.

About Elizabeth Scherman

Elizabeth SchermanElizabeth Leigh Scherman researches representations of divergent bodies in media as well as the rhetoric that accompanies such portrayals, whether in scientific literature, cinema, television, or other forms of popular culture.

She holds a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Washington and is senior tenured faculty at Bates College in Tacoma, Washington. Her work has appeared in peer reviewed journals and edited collections, including Disability Studies Quarterly, The Galaxy is Rated G: Essays on Children’s Science Fiction Film and Television, edited by R.C. Neighbors and Sandy Rankin, The Worlds of Farscape, edited by Sherry Ginn, and an upcoming anthology, Tim Burton: Essays on the Films, edited by Johnson Cheu.

Scherman is developing original curriculum for teaching writing to students interested in STEM fields and will be teaching and initiating this curriculum at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Education, Academic Talent Development Program in the summer of 2016.

10 tips for the 10-minute conference presentation

By Elizabeth Saewyc

You’ve spent months on your research, but have only 10 minutes to present it to the world. Yikes! But, fear not! There are some easy, practical ways to make it memorable.

In a striking back-to-back comparison showcased in the video below, I give a standard 10-minute research talk riddled with features that characterize too many dry scientific presentations. You’ll nod your head as you recognize them from your own and colleagues’ past efforts. Then watch, as I transform the same material in a subsequent presentation that showcases the potential of strong science communication to bring research alive with a little preparation. And no, we’re not talking about animating your slide deck. This is about the power of words to truly communicate research.

RESEARCH TOOLBOX; 10 Tips for a Dynamic 10-Minute Conference Presentation from UBC Nursing.

 

My top 10 tips are:

  1. Aside from the “I have nothing to disclose” statement, don’t start by thanking by name all the people on your first slide (your co-authors). Instead, say good morning or good afternoon, whichever is relevant, then start your presentation with a bit of dramatic statement – either the scope of the issue, something people don’t normally think of, something that sounds contrary to what people normally believe but hints at your results, or at least makes it clear why this research was needed. It’s a way of being compelling and catching attention, it projects confidence and draws people in. Not humour, though, that’s hard to pull off.
  2. The slides should illustrate your presentation points, not be your presentation. They should have no more than 3-4 points per slide, in phrases, not sentences, and no more than two lines per point (preferably one). Use bar charts or graphs or pictures where you can, with limited words.
  3. Don’t read the slides, make the points with slightly different words, and expand on them a bit.
  4. Speak slowly, way, way slower than you think you need to – we will always talk faster during a public speaking situation, so it’s important to speak slowly and clearly, especially since there will be people who have English as a second language in the audience, and are likely jet-lagged. Most of us speak at 120 words a minute, so that means, for a 10 minute presentation 1200 words max. Write out your script so that you have exactly those many words—the minute you digress, you run over time.
  5. Don’t be afraid to make a short statement with a bar chart or table on the slide, like “As you can see from this table, Southeast Asian girls reported poorer mental health than boys,” and then fall silent for a bit, letting people absorb the info before you switch to the next slide (this can heighten the drama/attention, and makes you look very polished and confident–even if you’re counting in your head how long to wait before you switch the slide and speak again!).
  6. Never, ever say, “okay, I know you can’t read this, but…” If it’s unreadable, too many lines, too small font, or too busy a table or figure, do not include it. Come up with a different way to convey the key points, because the minute you apologize for your slide, you’ve lost them.
  7. Avoid swooping transitions, nifty animations, cutesy cartoon graphics, and wild shifts of colour or font; anything that might make your audience seasick or dizzy won’t win you respect or attention.
  8. Remember to put in the “so what?” conclusion, or a concrete couple of clinical implications–or go back to your dramatic opening statement and bring it into the ending. If you’ve paced yourself with your 1200 words or fewer, you’ll have time to give the final punchline of what we should do now, or what we know now, because of this work.
  9. Say thank you! But don’t say, “I’d like to thank my supervisor, my committee, my colleagues, my family, my carpool, my dog…” and don’t mention the funding source, even if it’s listed on your last slide as an acknowledgment. Leave it for people to read during questions.
  10. Wear something bright red–a scarf, a tie, a blouse, a pocket handkerchief, a jacket, a dress; it draws the eye, enhances their alertness, and will help people find you afterwards to tell you what a fabulous job you did on your presentation, and what they liked about your study, or ask another question about it.

 About Elizabeth Saewyc

Elizabeth SaewycElizabeth Saewyc, PhD, RN, FSASHM, FCAHS, is Professor and Associate Director of Research & Teaching Scholarship, and heads the Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre. http://www.saravyc.ubc.ca/

Are you an expert in that?

By Nicola Jones

I have lost track of how many times I have received emails from hopeful high school students who read one of my news articles and wanted help with their project on sea level rise, or climate change, or volcanoes or earthquakes or the ongoing effort to grow enough food for the planet and keep emissions in check.

While I applaud these students for reaching out to a real person for help (as a journalist I find this the most efficient way to learn something new), I can’t help wonder what the heck their teachers are thinking, presuming that their teachers suggested this avenue of research. Sure, I have written news stories and features about sea level rise, climate change and all the rest, sometimes for authoritative publications like Nature or Yale Environment 360. Some of these articles must sound very convincing, chock full of facts, telling examples and compelling conclusions. I’m flattered, really I am. But I am NOT an expert in these subjects. I am an intermediary.

These emails I get are symptomatic of a bigger problem. Kids today aren’t being taught (or aren’t learning) how to vet information and expertise. Yes, I delved into each topic, for a while, and spoke to some leading experts about their research. But some of these articles are years old. And I never did the research myself; I’m a journalist who spoke to people, heard their stories, and tried to make sense of it all, briefly, and entertainingly, for my audience to read. As the saying goes, scientists know an awful lot about a little; journalists know very little about an awful lot. If these students want the current facts, they should go straight to the research papers, summary reports and people that I go to, not to me.

Trust Us

Re-used under CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.

This is important. In today’s information deluge, there are ever-more people spreading their theories as facts and hiding behind a cloak of apparent expertise (think Wikipedia, which has the sheen of an encyclopedic authority but actually can be, and often is, biased or just plain wrong). People seem ever-more-willing to Google things like “should I vaccinate my kids” and follow the advice they find in Yahoo answers rather than on the pages of the World Health Organization. Particularly when it comes to science, people can be befuddled by a cloak of fancy jargon into thinking that something must be true. Take the famous case of the sad disappearance of Madeleine McCann from a resort in Portugal in 2007 – newspapers reported that a “forensic analysis” by Danie Krügel of the University of Bloemfontein, based on a “DNA sample and GPS satellite technology”, had traced the missing child to the beach. After some further investigation, it was noted that Krugel was director of security at the university rather than a researcher, and the “device” in question couldn’t possibly do what it claimed to do (read more here).

We need to be teaching our kids (and university students / journalists / scientists) how to weigh information in the information age. What’s the so-called expert’s background? Do they have a real medical degree or a PhD from a credible institution, or is “doctor” just a nickname? How many years’ experience do they have, and what sort of experience? Do they have financial motivations? Where does the funding come from for that website that looks like a newspaper but is actually the front for an advocacy group? I’d love for these high school students who reach out to me, and my kids, to have the skills to critically evaluate information, know who to turn to for facts, and generally not be swayed by uninformed voices.

I admit there are blurry lines here. I probably do know more than these students about the given subject. (I’m not cruel; I tell them politely what I know, which is pretty much whatever I wrote in the article they read in the first place, and point them in the direction of further, more robust information.) Some journalists become authoritative experts on a subject by dint of following one specific story for years, or literally writing the book on an obscure topic. Some scientists have good pedigrees but wacky ideas outside the consensus view. All the more reason to teach people how to assess expertise for themselves.

So, should you listen to me on this subject? I can tell you I have been a journalist since 2000, and I did a science undergrad before that. I have worked for UBC teaching science journalism (for which I was paid), and I am friends with Eric Jandciu who asked me to write this blog post (for which I was not). You could check all that, and maybe you should.

Nicola medium profileAbout Nicola Jones

Nicola is a freelance science journalist, writer and editor living in the mountains of Pemberton, BC, where she splits her time between finding interesting stories and being a mom.