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Founders of Public Communication for Researchers (PCR) from left to right: Jesse Dunietz, Adona Iosif, and Ardon Shorr. (Image Credit: Tim Kaulen, Carnegie Mellon University)

Today’s guest post is contributed by Jesse Dunietz, co-founder of Public Communication for Researchers (PCR), and PhD student in the Department of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University.

You could be forgiven for thinking that a talk titled “Is there a war on science in the US?” would be a bit of a downer. But for me, it turned into the unexpected inspiration for an entire grassroots organization.

The presenter, speaking one summer evening in 2012, painted a distressing picture of science in the public sphere. I wished there was something I could do, and to my delight, the speaker did suggest a way out: scientists needed to connect with the public on a human level – to let their communication reveal their emotions, personalities, and vulnerabilities.

But just as I was filling up with the warm glow of opportunity, an audience member asked a disconcertingly practical question: “That all sounds great. I’m a grad student. Is anyone going to teach me how to do this?”

Though I did not know it at the time, a wave of science communication training was just sweeping through the US. Over the past few years, centers have emerged, training programs for scientists have popped up all over the country, and the NSF recently funded a large survey and strategic plan on graduate training in science communication. All these programs help scientists engage broad audiences via popular articles, classroom activities, public dialogues, and other non-academic channels.

But at the moment I sat in that talk, that wave had not yet reached us in Pittsburgh. And as the speaker hemmed and hawed about our barebones options, it dawned on me that if I wanted to learn public communication skills, I would have to build the training program myself.

So along with Ardon Shorr and Adona Iosif, two other graduate students, I started a grassroots organization offering workshops and practice opportunities in science communication. We brought in experts on storytelling and communicating across value systems; we ran improv exercises to help people tune in to their audiences’ needs; we even had mock TV hosts interview students on camera. It felt like a risky career move – a distraction from research that would earn us no love from our advisors. But we felt the sacrifice was worth it to help others reap the benefits of public engagement.

As it turns out, it was no sacrifice at all. After three years of running Public Communication for Researchers (PCR), we’ve become part of an incredible professional network, we’ve honed our organizational abilities, and most importantly we’ve learned the communication skills we wanted in the first place. If you care about science communication but lack access to training, starting your own program could bring you those benefits, too.

Teaching others helped us learn

The most obvious personal benefit from our efforts is that we got to attend our own events. Although as organizers we were sometimes preoccupied with logistics, we still heard the workshop content, and often participated in the exercises. In that sense, we got exactly the training we were looking for.

But as organizers, we learned far more than we could have as attendees: we were forced to think deeply and critically about the content. We worked closely with invited speakers to ensure that their material fit well with our audience and the rest of our workshops. We refined the exercises by testing them on ourselves. To determine what knowledge and skills were most essential, we first had to familiarize ourselves with a much greater body of knowledge and pare it down. After repeated exposure to the material, we began to teach some of the workshops ourselves – which required us to spend even more time wrestling with the content.

Even while we’re still in graduate school, the communication skills we’ve gained have already boosted our careers. I’ve received profuse thanks from an advisor who knows she can rely on me to write comprehensible papers. I’ve also been invited as a consulting trainer for a large company explicitly because of my demonstrated communication abilities. Another of us co-founded a startup, crafting pitches so compelling that they helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in investment. Our third co-founder taught a university course on communication and is already getting offers for teaching faculty positions. We would never have reached these levels of proficiency and recognition had we not been closely involved in organizing and crafting workshops for others.

Working with experts built our network

Another source of unanticipated benefit has been working with invited speakers. In the course of coordinating with, designing content with, and transporting our guests, we’ve had many great conversations with science communication experts. These conversations have allowed us to learn informally from their attitudes and behaviors in a way that went beyond the content of a workshop.

Working with experts has also put us on close terms with some of the heavyweights in science communication: when I’ve needed advice on career planning, for example, I’ve been able to go to people like Ben Lillie of The Story Collider, and PCR periodically consults with Liz Bass and her colleagues at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science about training priorities and strategies. These relationships have been an invaluable source of insight, advice, and mentorship.

Working together taught us how to manage a team

Although scientists certainly do need skills for broader communication, that is far from the only important skillset missing from our training. Academics are often effectively turned into managers, coordinating the efforts of teams of other researchers and representing their work to peers and grant funders. The large fraction of graduate students and postdocs who leave academia are even more likely to face management challenges, working in organizations with large budgets and more rigid hierarchies. Yet few early-career researchers have any experience or training in management.

We have found running a small organization to be a perfect opportunity to develop these skills. We have learned much about how to grow a team, how to coordinate tasks within that team, and how to develop a positive dynamic among its members. We have also dramatically improved at other kinds of organizational management, including managing a budget, professional communication on behalf of an organization, and running efficient meetings. Although acquiring these skills was not our primary goal in starting PCR, it will probably yield the most long-lasting effects on our careers.

Tips for starting your own program

We hope that our positive experience will inspire others to lead similar initiatives, and to reap the trifecta of personal benefits we’ve described: learning about communication, meeting the experts, and gaining professional skills. To that end, here are a few insights we’ve gained along the way:

  1. Don’t go it alone. You can find plenty of material on how to communicate about science, including how to teach others about communicating. Chase that material down and learn from it. Most of the creators of this material are eager to help other programs get on their feet, so get in touch. On that note, if you’re interested in talking with us about any aspect of our experience, please drop us a line!
  2. Make lots of personal connections. Beyond our university, we made a point of attending conferences and workshops (even some outside our fields!) where we knew there would be many science communication experts. Talking to those experts produced many of our long-term collaborations and mentoring relationships. It’s also critical to find supporters within your institution. Our success would have been impossible without the advocacy of one administrator whom we befriended early on, and who became our champion within the university.
  3. Pay attention to the social scientists. There is now a large body of social science research on when and how it makes sense for scientists to engage with the public. We scientists like to insist on listening to the data; we need to apply the same philosophy to our public communication, especially since some of our basic intuitions turn out to be wrong.
  4. Start with the minimum viable product. When we first started PCR, we were inclined to design the entire curriculum at once: to lay out our ideal program and then build it. For practical reasons, we instead turned to whoever we could find (local journalists, university PR staff) to discuss whatever topics they knew best – and this turned out to be exactly what we needed. Much of what we needed to know to build a strong program we only learned from iterating, and a record of any kind of successful programming allowed us to gain further support for the project, so that once we had a stronger vision, we had the resources to execute it.

With the demand for science communication skills continuing to grow, we hope the training for those skills will be increasingly available. But in the meantime – or perhaps even as a route to getting there – scientists, particularly early-career scientists, have much to gain from organizing this training themselves. If our experience is any indication, they won’t regret it.

The views expressed in guest posts are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by the Genetics Society of America or its employees.

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