Science Says at #ScienceTalk20 (virtually!)

The #ScienceTalk20 logo (credit: Priya Shukla)
The #ScienceTalk20 logo (credit: Priya Shukla)

Science Talk is a science communication conference that was supposed to take place in Portland, OR, but was moved online after travel and gathering restrictions were put in place in response to COVID-19. This permitted several members of the Science Says community to virtually participate. These are their stories. *dun dun*

Priya Shukla’s Experience:

Priya Shukla virtually attended #SciTalk20 (credit: Priya Shukla)
Priya Shukla virtually attended #SciTalk20 (credit: Priya Shukla)

The virtual conference opened with a keynote talk from Chris Volpe, Executive Director of the science literacy  Science Counts. Volpe laid out 3 oft-heard tenets of Science Communication: 1) Know Thy Goal, 2) Know Thy Audience, and 3) Know Thyself.  I am a PhD student at UC Davis studying the effects of climate change on shellfish farmed along the California coast and my scicomm umbrella encompasses climate and ocean science. Thus, I went into Science Talk wanting to learn how to better discuss polarizing concepts. I knew my goal (to increase public awareness about the consequence of climate change and to share the wonders of the ocean). I knew my audience (lay people intrigued by nature that are concerned about climate change). And, I knew myself (an enthusiastic science communicator well-versed in these issues). 

But in the week leading up to Science Talk, I wondered if I needed to broaden my scicomm domain even further to encompass our current public health crisis.  Since our global populus began socially distancing, several well-meaning individuals wishing to redirect their expertise into the fight against coronavirus have published misinformed and inaccurate “armchair epidemiology” pieces. As a scientist, public health and epidemiology only peripherally overlap with my expertise. But as a communicator, I was itching to do something.

Dr. Ellen Peters, a science communication professor at the University of Oregon, and Dr. Tara Smith, whose lab at Kent State University studies zoonotic pathogens, shared a series of tips on carefully communicating about the coronavirus. In times of crisis, people use their emotions and gut reactions to make decisions. They are overwhelmed and not able to internalize nuanced information. Thus, communicators must “identify the single overriding communication objective!”. In these moments, it is also incredibly important to avoid using jargon – which “social distancing” (oops!) and “flatten the curve” are! But, what really stuck out to me, was that perhaps I didn’t need to be the communicator. Connecting with a trusted community leader and making sure they can convey the necessary information may be even more effective (like the conversation between Steph Curry and Dr. Anthony Fauci).

Nevertheless, there is a role for science communicators in this era of COVID-19 – regardless of their expertise. Deft science communicators are well-poised to share discrete pieces of information while also providing sufficient context. Moreover, these skills are fully translatable to the realms of climate and ocean science where analogous crises are expected to occur

Hanna Bartram’s Experience:

Hanna at Science Talk
Hanna Bartram virtually attended #SciTalk20 (credit: Hanna Bartram)

I was fortunate to have been able to attend Science Talk ‘19 last year in Portland, and was very much looking forward to Science Talk ‘20. I was crushed when the organizers announced the cancellation, and thrilled when they changed course and decided to have a virtual conference instead. The organizers did an outstanding job tackling the challenge of restructuring the in-person conference to be online, especially in such a short timeframe. 

Science communication is a way to bridge a span or gap in knowledge, so it is fitting that the theme of the conference was “building bridges.” Participants were able to build bridges with others in the science communication world, while also learning how to build bridges with their scicomm audiences to become better communicators.

As we learned from Chris Volpe, your approach when communicating needs to match your desired outcome. There are many different approaches in science communication, including education, outreach, journalism, and advocacy. Each of those approaches lead to different outcomes. Education leads to science literacy, outreach leads to awareness, journalism informs, and science advocacy persuades. Chris shared an example of when science communication’s approach did not match with the desired outcome: climate change. In that case, scientists used education instead of advocacy, hoping to persuade the public. It’s often hard for scientists to be advocates, because scientists want to be impartial and let the data speak for itself. We’ve seen that this approach can fail when issues become polarized. People often reach their own conclusions first, then search for evidence to support their conclusion. As Program, Educational, and Outreach Coordinator at the Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy (IFAL), I help facilitate conversation on polarizing topics like GMOs. The principles discussed here helped me think about how to best align IFAL’s approaches to meet our goals.

Given the circumstances surrounding the virtual conference, there was a lot of discussion of how to be good communicators on pandemic-related topics. For a lot of people, science means hope, and the expectation of future (positive) outcomes. When scientists deliver bad news, there’s a cognitive dissonance for our audiences. That can be a challenge when dealing with a crisis like the current COVID-19 situation that requires scientists to communicate with a scared public. There is so much uncertainty right now – how do we communicate in that environment?

Here are a few key takeaways that stood out to me.

  1. Identify your communication goal. You can’t communicate all the facts at once, especially in a crisis.
  2. Provide numeric information to correct misinformation.
  3. Use jargon as little as possible; explain the basics. Reduce cognitive effort for your audience. 
  4. New numbers/concepts can be unclear, so you need to provide the context for the data. Boil it down to “is it good or bad or somewhere in between?” Use strong visuals to address discrepancies in numbers.
  5. Be transparent and accurate – be honest about the uncertainty. We don’t have all the answers, but we’re working to get there! You WANT to communicate uncertainty, both to build trust, but also so that people aren’t surprised when things change in the future.
  6. Test your communications to improve your message – good #SciComm is an iterative process!
  7. Use metaphors and analogies. 
  8. One important thing to remember is that we should be repeating correct information over and over! This helps decrease the validity of misinformation. 

I also had a chance to present a poster during Science Talk’s virtual poster session about Science Says and the work we do! Here's a link to the PDF.

Marwa Zafarullah’s Experience:

A new form of Multitasking: Marwa Zafarullah virtually attending #SciTalk20
A new form of Multitasking: Marwa Zafarullah virtually attending #SciTalk20  (credit: Marwa Zafarullah)

A new form of Multitasking: Marwa Zafarullah virtually attending #SciTalk20  (credit: Marwa Zafarullah)

I am a PhD candidate in Integrative Genetics and Genomics at UC Davis working toward the development of the biomarker for the early diagnosis and disease progression of neurodegenerative disorders. I am currently exploring career options and recently became very interested in science communication. Attending Science Talk was my first scicomm event, and it was an excellent experience. Due to the current situation, the organizers brought enthusiastic communicators together virtually for the conference. When I first heard about it, I was amazed: having a two-day conference entirely virtual? But after attending this conference, I say it was a fantastic idea, and everything went smoothly, including networking and poster presentations.

         For both days, a lot of good talks were lined up. Still, the first one that really piqued my interest was “Collaboration Between Academia and Science Communication Community” by Nicole Sharp. She beautifully explained the possible ways of the collaboration between academia and the science communication community and, more specifically, how both communities can mutually benefit from them. Academics get access to the storytelling, production, broad audiences, and new insight into research and teaching. Communicators get to work on fun new topics, access to financial support through academic grants, and a chance to learn new skills. 

Later, Jackie Wirz defined types of introverts and extroverts and how an introvert can pose as an extrovert. I am not familiar with the technical differences and this introduced me to the challenges that introverts face in the real world. 

“The Coronavirus Chat: Communication During a Public Health Crisis” by Ellen Peters was a discussion urgently needed in these uncertain times. She not only evaluated the situation critically but also suggested her realistic approach to working together in this situation and tackling challenges. COVID-19 has started a new era and changed a lot of concepts in terms of human contact and professional working.

         Science Talk provided the best example for the positive use of this social distancing time and how to mold the situation according to the need of an hour. I learned a lot regarding the importance, forms, and contributions of science communication, and, as a young scientist, how I can use those tools to translate my research to the general public. It was just the beginning, and I am looking forward to exploring the shared resources from Science Talk to learn more and establish a much-needed skillset.

Emily Steliotes’s Experience:

I am currently a second year PhD student in the Agricultural and Environmental Chemistry Graduate Group conducting my dissertation research in the Department of Food Science and Technology. This spring, I am also serving as a Science Communication Intern with the Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy (IFAL), which includes working with Hanna to write blog posts and produce my new podcast called Evolution Eats

Through working with Hanna on the blog posts and producing my podcast, I have learned that science communication can be very tricky, especially when you are trying to communicate controversial topics to a public audience. I wanted to attend this conference to learn what professional science communicators had to say about best practices for effective scicomm, and I was not disappointed. This conference gave me valuable insight into how to communicate factual information in a more interesting way and persuade people with facts. I would recommend it and similar science communication events to graduate students, as I believe scientists that can effectively communicate their findings to people outside their field will be able to have a greater impact on society.