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February 5, 2015

Why I Love Science Communication

In case it isn't clear, I've moved slowly over time from science to science support to science communication. I love all of it. But I especially love communication.

Someone whom I now work with once asked me why I switched into communication. I gave an answer that made it sound like I was disillusioned by my master's or couldn't hack it. I could put it that way, saying I was exhausted and frustrated at the end of my master's and not ready for a PhD, or that I'm just not that great at math, or that I'm not inspired by power systems, and some of all of that is true. But it's also true that I really, really love communication. So why fight it?

And I don't think communication is a cop-out in the least. Communication has beautiful challenges. It's a constant game of strategy and problem solving, taking information and figuring out how to best express it. And there's no one right answer. As far as we'll know, there's not even a best answer. You can't apply a model and solve for it. You just have to go. Think about your audience. How to 1) reach them, 2) connect with them, 3) motivate them, if that's what you're trying to do. I get to deal in the realm of information and people.

I took a science writing class a few years ago in journalism grad school. About half the students were in journalism, the other half in science or engineering. I ran into one of the engineering students after the semester was over and asked what he thought of the class. It was okay, he said, but I'm going to stick to engineering. He'd like to make a change in the world, he said, and he'd rather do it than talk about it.

Sure. I get it. But no need to be condescending about it. Because if no one's talking about what you're doing, good luck making a change in the world. If you can do the talking yourself, great. I know many scientists who are also great communicators. In fact, I think the trend of scientist communicators is increasing. The National Science Foundation now puts emphasis on broadening the impact of research they fund, whether it's through educational programs, informing policy decisions, or enhancing national security. Major meetings the the annual Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the largest meeting of Earth scientists in the world, host sessions and workshops on science communication (I'm hoping to teach one this year). People like glaciologist Allen Pope, here in Boulder, find time to tweet about their research while working on their PhDs (find Allen at @PopePolar). Volcanologist Jessica Ball writes a blog for AGU called Magma Cum Laude. My friend the glaciologist PhD candidate Gifford Wong, whom I met aeons ago in Antarctica, teaches scientists to communicate using skills learned through improv. (I'm hoping to learn to do that myself. Seriously.... fun!)

But there are still folks who either aren't so interested in or adept at the communications side, and I like to think that for those people, in particular, there are people like me. Who LOVE to communicate, especially to the public. Mi excitement es tu excitement. And, as it so happens, I love to teach. I love to teach scientists to better communicate. Which means I have to learn the tips and tricks, and then how to teach them. This is the kind of stuff I love thinking about it the shower.

In talking about doing a PhD, a friend asked me a few years ago what I think about as I go to bed at night, or as I wake up in the morning. This is what I think about: How to communicate.

Posted by beth at February 5, 2015 3:49 AM

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