Students and faculty in Upstate’s College of Graduate Studies got a crash course in “communicating science” last month from a visiting physician whose first college degree was in journalism.
Evonne Kaplan-Liss, MD MPH, from the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, visited Upstate last month to meet with biomedical science students in the College of Graduate Studies. Her visit was part of the college’s Career Development workshop series.
Dr. Kaplan-Liss spent most of a day with students and faculty, exploring ways to more effectively “communicate science.” She gave a lecture and then held small-group sessions with graduate students, including Cherry Mae Ignacio, a member of the College of Graduate Studies’ Career Development Committee.
“Graduate students are trainee scientists,” said Cherry, whose research involves how the brain is affected by alcoholism. ”Part of our training is learning how to distill our message in a clear, concise manner – to our funding sources, to family members and to patients. For students, this has the advantage of helping us solidify ideas about our projects.”
Dr. Kaplan-Liss’ advice included:
- avoid jargon
- answer the “so what?” question
- know your audience’s base knowledge level
- introduce complexity gradually
- stress overall meaning, rather than details
She also showed a video featuring actor Alan Alda — a founding member of the National Advisory Board for the Center for Communicating Science — describing a medical problem he had while in Chile. In three minutes, Alda wonderfully illustrates the difference between “dumbing down” medical or scientific information and simply being clear.
Alda is a serious advocate for clear communication in medicine and science, and takes particular joy in the annual “Flame Challenge,” in which 11-year-olds judge the clarity of scientists’ answers to such questions as “What is time?”
Dr. Kaplan-Liss is a member of the steering committee of the Center for Communicating Science and director of the Advanced Certificate in Health Communications, a joint program of Stony Brook’s Graduate Program in Public Health and School of Journalism.
The center aims to enhance the understanding of science by training scientists and health care professionals to communicate more effectively with the public, the media and other non-scientists.
Done well, “communicating science” has the potential for better accountability and greater understanding of existing research and continued advances in health care.
“Upstate researchers are funded by grants, mostly from the National Institutes of Health and non-profit organizations, and these are publicly funded,” Cherry said. “Therefore, we have a responsibility to tell the public how we’re spending that money. The public have misconceptions about what we do in the lab. I find that if we walk people through what we’re doing, and why it matters, people get as excited about the research as we are.
“It’s very easy to forget why you’re doing an experiment, especially because they require attention to detail,” Cherry added. “A well-thought out aim is very important for any budding scientist so that you focus your energies on the big picture.”