I think we’re NOT alone now

Finding new and engaging ways to communicate science is of paramount importance. But, how many opportunities are there to practice the art of communication?
When can we try out different methods of distilling science?
It seems that these chances are relatively rare considering clear communication is something for which we all strive.
I was given carte blanche to develop my first course at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.I decided to fill a gap in the grad student curriculum and test run a scicomm course. As I was developing and teaching the course, I wondered how many other science communication courses were out there.
It’s not to say there aren’t opportunities. There’s fellowships, such as workshops at AAAS, but they seemed somewhat out of reach to the regular undergrad or grad student working on their degree.
Books, such as Nancy Baron’s Escape from the Ivory Tower, are also available, but when can you practice what these books preach, regardless of your career stage?
In the fall of 2016, my students and I would either sink or swim together.
I modeled my course outline on a course I’d taken while I was an MS candidate at Cal State Northridge: Biol 691 Graduate Proseminar, taught by Bobby Espinoza. CSUN Prosem students spend 15 weeks practicing PowerPoint presentations, constructing CVs and writing Sigma Xi-type grant proposals.
Not only did each student leave a more polished communicator, but also a more adept peer reviewer. After the first time your grad student peers picked apart your presentation, you quickly learned how to impart constructive criticism!
Hands down, Prosem was the most fundamental course I took as as student. I’d wager possibly the most important course I’ve ever taken. Yet, in the time since I left CSUN for pastures foreign and domestic, I rarely encountered similar courses, in terms of length and breadth. Sure, students might get feedback on presentations highlighting a seminal paper in an ecology course or at a grad student colloquium, but the focus was always on the science. Where and when are there opportunities to develop our skills of communicating science with style?
Think about the really excellent talks you see at a conference. Which are the ones you remember most? Not necessarily the most famous person, but the talks that told a good story. Prosem helped me tell a good story through effective use of Powerpoint and how to communicate it in a 12-minute window, among other comm skills.
I wanted to provide my students at UAB with a similar foundation as they start their careers. So, I called Bobby and he generously sent me all his course materials, giving me the security blanket of a course that had worked many times over. I, then, took his template and made it my own.
My students dove in head first with me last autumn and made an indelible mark on my nascent teaching career. From the first elevator pitch to final full-length seminar with some writing thrown in for good measure, each student rose to the challenge of becoming a better science communicator.
In addition to the “normal” science-y things like PowerPoint presentations and CVs, I wanted to add more to the course in terms of writing, specifically blogging. I well remember when I was selected as one of the cohort of new contributors to The Molecular Ecologist in 2014. I agonized over my first post, struggling to strike a balance between clarity and color.
Blogging for TME has given me an opportunity to let loose and have some fun with writing. Even though I’ve not been able to devote as much time as I’d like over the last 6 months, my time at TME has nevertheless profoundly influenced the way I think about science and communication.
Yet, not everyone gets the opportunity to test the communication waters with regular writing gigs. So, with Jeremy’s blessing, my first crop of students could pick a topic (with a dash of molecular ecology) and write a blog post that could get published on TME.
Now that the students have finished their blog posts (how is it March already??), I’ve been at a bit of a loss as to how to introduce their guest posts. I’ve also been wondering about other scicomm opportunities and how to connect with other like-minded folks.
What does one do when one can’t figure out the snazziest way to write something?
I procrastinated and for once, procrastination paid off. Joe Palca came to Birmingham.
Joe, a science correspondent for National Public Radio since 1992, was our guest speaker for Darwin Day in February. He has successfully exploited a gap in the news and transitioned from a scientist to a science communicator. His visit and my subsequent interview with him was just what I needed to introduce my students’ blog posts and connect with other scicomm’rs.
Joe started Joe’s Big Idea in part as a way to help grad students see the world afresh and not within the rigid confines of an introduction, materials and methods, results and discussion (plus 40 pages of supplementary documents). His goal is to share the wonder of science and help scientists learn to communicate clearly and colorfully.
As Joe traveled the country from the NPR science desk he noticed that many different scicomm programs were being started around the country. Clearly, there’s an appetite for scicomm. Yet, time and time again, the people behind these scicomm efforts felt alone, myself included.
Friends of Joe’s Big Idea, or FOJBIs (pronounced foe-JOE-bees), has created a network of scicomm’rs, from grad students to PIs. Upon becoming a FOJBI, you’ll have a map of every other FOJBI with which to connect if you happen to be in their neck of the woods. So, if you were to come to Birmingham, AL, there’s now a list of people that are invested in scicomm, including me!

Zoomed in map on North American FOJBIs. I just joined after Joe’s visit to UAB.

But, Joe’s taken it one step further with recent microbiology grad, Maddie Sofia. They’ve started Office Hours. Students and post-docs submit blogs they’ve written and get feedback from peers and Joe and Maddie. They interface through Slack and offer real-time feedback on writing, thereby creating a scicomm network of peer reviewers. One FOJBI just had her piece accepted for Scientific American! Once our UAB Biology blog gets up and running, UAB students will be taking advantage of these Office Hours too!
I’ve now started to work with Maddie to connect to other people starting scicomm courses. By making our course materials open access, we hope that this will facilitate networking and sharing amongst scicomm’rs. We can figure out what works and what doesn’t as a collective effort rather than as islands at our respective institutions.
It feels that the scicomm snowball is gaining girth and momentum and Joe’s visit was serendipitous for both UAB scicomm, but also my student’s blog posts!
Over the next few weeks, they’ll be a series of guest posts from my first crop of scicomm students.
If you’re interested in becoming a FOJBI send an email to Joe at jpalca@npr.org.
If you teach a sci comm course, get in touch with me at sakh@uab.edu.

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