NEB® TV Ep. 29 – The Importance of Science Communication

In this episode, learn about new and interesting techniques in science communication from our 2019 Passion in Science Winners.


Deana Martin:
Welcome to NEB TV. Today I am joined by my good friend and coworker, Lydia Morrison. Lydia is a member of the Marketing Communications Team here at NEB. She is also the Social Media Manager and the host of the NEB podcast series, Lessons From Lab and Life. Hey, Lydia.

Lydia Morrison:
Hey Deana.

Deana Martin:
And today we're talking about interesting ways to communicate with scientists. Back in May, we interviewed some of our Passion in Science winners about some of the interesting projects that they're working on, and we'll share those today. But first I thought we'd talk with Lydia about the podcast series. Lydia, can you tell us a little bit about Lessons From Lab and Life?

Lydia Morrison:
I'd love to. So the mission of the podcast is really in the podcast title, and the aim of every episode is to draw a lesson from the stories of life science. So those might be stories that offer a historical perspective about a technology or a technique, or they could be about a current innovative technology and the way that that could potentially impact our lives tomorrow.

Deana Martin:
Great. And how does this help researchers?

Lydia Morrison:
So we hope that the podcast offers researchers a little perspective. Research can be so tough, and researchers are at the bench every day. And between those peaks of discovery and wonder, there's the slogging through every day, sort of monotonous tasks and maybe the disappointments of some disproven hypotheses.

So we hope that they can take a step back when they're listening to the podcast, and maybe draw some inspiration and perspective from the podcast stories that we share, stories about how their research can really contribute to moving life science forward.

Deana Martin:
And why do you think that science podcasts are gaining in popularity?

Lydia Morrison:
That's an interesting question. I think people are really thirsty for knowledge, and I think that podcasts offer a great way for listeners to be able to hear from really knowledgeable experts, and really hear the stories directly from those people.

I think also it's wonderful to be able to listen to something while your eyes or your hands are doing something else. So it really lets people sort of hear these really inspiring stories while they're taking care of some other tasks. Maybe even while they're at the bench.

Deana Martin:
So we've been hosting the podcast series for a little over a year now, correct? Do you have any favorite episodes?

Lydia Morrison:
Oh, way to put me on the spot. I think one of my favorite episodes was the interview with Tom Knight from Ginkgo Bioworks. Tom has a really amazing story and history. He's certainly a brilliant individual, and he started out as a computer scientist. I think he's a great example of how you don't have to feel boxed in by a very specific area of study, and it's okay to cross those boundaries and integrate different fields of study. And he's sometimes called the godfather of synthetic biology. He's really moved to this computer science programming thinking into the field of biology. And it's amazing what he's done with his career and what he's inspired through the iGEM program, as well as many other programs he's been involved with.

Deana Martin:
Yeah, I like that one, too. How can our researchers find the podcast?

Lydia Morrison:
So, you can find the podcast on You can also find the podcast on iTunes. And if you're an Android user, you can find it on Stitcher.

Deana Martin:
Great. All right, so let's hear from some of our Passion in Science winners.

Sarah McAnulty:
My name's Sarah McAnulty. I'm at the University of Connecticut. I'm a squid biologist, and I also founded the program Skype A Scientist. Skype A Scientist is a nonprofit that matches scientists and classrooms all around the world. We've reached about 15,000 classrooms so far, and we have a group of 6,000 scientists that participate. The way the matching works is that teachers request a scientist based on the type of scientist that they want to talk to, and we can also match them with given underrepresented minorities in science. So if the teacher wants to talk to a female scientists, we can match them with that, with an LGBTQ scientist, or even underrepresented minorities ethnically in science as well.

Skype A Scientist is helpful for both young researchers in the scientific community and also for young students, because in graduate school there's really no established curriculum for most places in science communication training. So really you only get practice by doing it. And Skype A Scientist is kind of a low stress environment to talk about science with people who don't do science for a living. And so it's a really a good platform for that kind of practice.

And also it helps young kids because a lot of people have never met a scientist. I think about 80% of people polled in 2018, of the American population, said they can't name a living scientist. And so, of course, that means they haven't met one. And so you have this perception of what scientists look like, how they behave, and it's very, very different from how we actually are. And so just getting to meet us is really important for changing people's perception of science and scientists. And also I think that helps people sort of trust us when they get to really see who we are as opposed to how we're seen or portrayed in movies and TV.

I think it's important for scientists to communicate their work, and also their broad areas of study, in areas outside of just science conferences and peer reviewed publication, because most of the public is never going to go to a conference. They're never going to read the peer reviewed literature, because we use so much jargon in these places that it would go completely over their head. So it's important for scientists to practice communication to the public if not only to get their work out, but also just to get better at communicating in general. Even within the scientist community and within our field it's really important to be good at communicating why your work is important, for getting grants, for grant readers outside of your field. It's professionally helpful and it's also absolutely essential for the public to understand what science is really accomplishing and why it's important.

Sarah Fankhauser:
My name is Sarah Fankhauser. I'm an Assistant Professor of Biology at Oxford College of Emory University, and I'm also the founder of the Journal of Emerging Investigators.

The journal really came out of an idea that I had when I was in graduate school, and I was doing a lot of outreach at the time, attending science fairs, and going to local after school programs and doing science with the students. And I realized that they were really missing this one critical piece of the scientific process, and that's publishing their work and sharing it with a broad audience. So I looked around to see are there journals out there for elementary, middle, and high school students? And there weren't, or at least there weren't any that really met the criteria that I had in mind, which is it has to be free, it has to be easily accessible, and importantly it has to have an authentic peer review process that is really engaging students in this exploration of what the scientific process really is, and connecting these student authors with scientists in their field.

To date we actually have over 200 published papers, and we set our goal to publish at least one paper a week. And we have now exceeded that goal, and I think we're at about 1.4 publications a week. Students don't actually have a holistic vision of what the scientific process is until they've engaged in this peer review process with the Journal of Emerging Investigators. And it's through this process that they realize that what it really means to think critically about science, and this idea that science isn't perfect and that it requires revision, it requires going back and forth, and rethinking about experiments and results, and how they're communicating their work. And I think even more importantly, students realize that science is a very collaborative effort. And the reviewers that are reviewing their papers, they aren't being critical, but they are part of the process with the student and helping them to improve their science.

One of the goals with JEI is that we would never reject a paper based on the level of sophistication. So we get papers in all sorts of fields, of all levels of sophistication. We've had papers that have tested the absorbency of different diapers. We've also had papers that have used CRISPR, or papers that are looking at nuclear physics. So it really is a range of different fields as well as different levels of sophistication.

Garfield Kwan:
Hi, I'm Garfield Kwan. I am a PhD student studying fish physiology at Scripts Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California. In my spare time I founded Squidtoons comic to illustrate science using various comics and other medium. And the key here is that I focus on creating comics that are scientifically accurate as well as visually appealing.

I thought of Squidtoons primarily out of frustrations. I saw scientists being misinterpreted and unfairly attacked on social media as well as in the press. And that really had me thinking about how much we really need scientific literacy in the public sphere. I invited a couple of friends, and together we started making comics to help engage the public in a manner that would be beneficial for everyone.

So I believe comics is a great medium to discuss scientific research because first and foremost the illustrations are disarming. So when a person is approached by a piece of comic, they are more likely to read it versus a scientific paper. Another reason why scientific comics are a great tool is because it has relatively few words and the visuals are usually pretty appealing, so that both kids and adults alike would enjoy and learn something from it.

I think it's important to offer alternative communication methods, especially comics. In my work comics are able to reach the inner child in all of us.

When I first moved from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, I needed an English name and I picked Garfield because I read Garfield comics in Chinese back then. Turns out that Garfield comics were also one of the main reasons why I learned to be fluent in English. One of the reasons why I believe comic is so impactful and able to communicate or articulate concepts that are pretty complex is because you have a combination of imagery and relatively few words. The words, non-native speakers might not be able to understand it in the beginning, but combining it with the images in the panels, you might be able to get a better idea of what's going on. And over time, that is one key method that I use to communicate science, which could be a different language to many people.

Scientific communication is, in a sense, communicating an area that relatively few people visit or even master. And because the field is so wide and the knowledge is so deep, we can't expect everyone to be fluent in science. So using comics, we can make that bridge. We can make it so that everyone is able to access the information given enough communication investment.

Deana Martin:
So Lydia, thanks so much for joining me today.

Lydia Morrison:
Thanks for having me Deana.

Deana Martin:
And I think it's interesting to hear about all these new methods for communication. I think it's important for scientists to be able to use multiple forms of media, and as well as to be able to come up with new ways to communicate to non-scientists. So it's really great topics today.

Lydia Morrison:

Deana Martin:
So, thanks so much for joining us. And if you have any suggestions for future episodes, please let us know.

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