This is a guest post by Kara Manke, an MIT grad student and also a member of the “Communicating Science” workshop organizing committee.
During our monthly phone call, my grandma invariably asks me, “so, have you figured out that glass stuff yet?” It seems that, despite having spent five years of graduate school studying the physics of glass-forming liquids, all that I have managed to convey to her is that I work on “that glass stuff.”
This is a common experience for graduate students in science. At parties, on airplanes, in line at the coffee shop, people ask us, “so, what is your research about?” And despite spending our days surrounded by fascinating stories of discovery and innovation, we cannot answer in a way that doesn't confuse or bore our audience.
When communicating with other scientists, we are trained to be extremely succinct. Space is limited. Journal articles have strict page limits and conference talks are no longer than 10 minutes. We believe we must cram as much information into as few words as possible. This leads to an explosion of jargon, a wild proliferation of acronyms, and a steep decline in comprehensibility. Few of us are taught to write or speak in such a way that non-experts will actually understand us, much less be excited by what we say.
Luckily, many young scientists, recognizing the need to explain their work in an increasingly technological society, are looking to improve their skills at communicating science. Some, inspired by the growing number of popular books, articles, and blogs on science, are even considering science writing careers, or would like to incorporate popular science writing into their academic careers. After five or more years of graduate study, however, most students balk at the prospect of returning to school for formal training in journalism or science writing.
In response, a group of graduate students who write for the blogs Astrobites and Chembites has come together to organize the first “Communicating Science” workshop, which will be held from June 13th to June 15th in Cambridge, MA. This conference is designed to help graduate students write and speak about science more effectively (and creatively!) to a general audience. Science writers from a variety of backgrounds will lead panels on topics such as “Engaging non-scientific audiences,” “The world of non-academic publishing,” and “Communicating with multimedia and the web.” In addition, each participant will have the opportunity to produce an original piece of science writing and have it reviewed by both their peers and one of our expert panelists.
We hope that by the end of the conference, attendees will no longer be stumped by the question, “what is your research about?” More importantly, we hope they leave with the tools to embark on new science writing projects of their own.
For more information, and to apply for one of a limited number of spaces, please visit comscicon.com. There is no registration fee, and we welcome applications from graduate students in all areas of science. Travel reimbursement and accommodation will be provided for a limited number of out-of-state attendees.