Translating “Sciencese”

GC Science Communications Fellows Melina Giakoumis and Alyssa Martin

From COVID-19 to climate change, the public’s understanding, support, and pursuit of science has never been more critical. This fall, The Graduate Center piloted the GC Science Communication Fellowship (created in partnership with the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development and the Office of Communications and Marketing) to give two students the opportunity to hone practical skills for communicating science to all audiences — in particular the general public. The experience includes social media, educational outreach, podcasting, and a culminating project with the goal of creating science communication resources for future CUNY graduate students. 
Our inaugural fellows are Melina Giakoumis, a Biology Ph.D. candidate focused on utilizing genomics to understand the evolution of marine species and facilitate wildlife conservation, and Alyssa Martin, a Biology Ph.D. student whose research investigates how communication between midbrain dopamine circuits and glia contributes to white matter plasticity in disease models. Here, they share their experiences to date.  
Hey Alyssa! It’s nice to have some time get to know each other better, and to discuss all the exciting things we’ve been doing. What made you interested in applying for this fellowship, and how do you feel about your experience so far?

All of my previous science experience has been in the research field, but one of the things I enjoy most after all of the bench work is presenting my work. Besides short presentations of my lab work and teaching, I've had communication and outreach experience in other fields, museums mostly, but never in the field of science. For me those two spheres, science and communication, were separate. Despite this, I began to think about possible careers where I can communicate the work that's done in the lab to others. This fellowship was a great opportunity to get experience in different aspects of that.
I have been enjoying the fellowship so far, and one of the aspects I’ve enjoyed the most is the video editing — building short, good-for-social-media videos explaining different topics. 
I'm also looking forward to the Alumni Aloud podcast. I think a strong alumni network is integral to any graduate program. With The Graduate Center in particular, we're right in the heart of New York City, and have a far-reaching network of alumni.  Being able to talk to alumni about careers that you wouldn't necessarily think of, I think, is going to be really interesting and eye-opening. 
I’ve also spent a lot of time in the lab. I was a technician before I started my Ph.D., but I’ve always loved science outreach. I've taught science to various age groups, in informal and formal settings. But more recently, I started participating in a program called Skype-a-Scientist. Scientists are requested by school teachers and Skype into K-12 classrooms across the country. I've had to adjust my research narrative to different age groups and different knowledge levels. Talking about marine biology with first graders in the middle of the country who have never seen the ocean is a fun and rewarding experience. Lots of teachers request that you talk about what it's like to be a scientist, and I think most teachers want to convey that this is possible for anyone, and that scientists are real people. 
Another motivator for me to do this fellowship was to become a better advocate for science-based policy. For conservation, it is essential to communicate with the public. You can predict the impacts of climate change all you want, but if the public isn't on board with the mitigation strategies that you want to implement, then you're not going to get anywhere.
So far, the fellowship has been fun! Summarizing research and picking out the points that will matter to the public is fun! In some ways more fun than scientific writing because it's less precise and you don’t need to be hyper-focused on the details. I'm really looking forward to our culminating project because I really do want to leave something behind for future graduate students to use as a resource. 
How has COVID impacted your view of science communication? And, in your opinion, what's the importance of science communication, especially in this moment? 
I think, at a time when we really need to be paying attention to medical advancements and what medical professionals are saying with their experience, science communication is very important. 
As scientists we get stuck in this specific way of talking.  For example, we don't say prove, and when we say significant, we mean a very particular thing. Because of that, when we talk to a lay population a lot of things get lost in translation to the detriment of understanding.
This is something I am actively learning. Now with COVID, it's finding ways to communicate and be interactive and entertaining to engage with the people on the other side of the screen. Through the fellowship, we've been focusing a lot on virtual science communication, learning how to communicate science over this platform that we're relegated to in this time.
COVID has also opened my eyes to the importance of science communication. And I totally agree with your points about the accessibility of science. In my view, there are two distinct reasons that science communication is important. 
The first is, like you said, that science affects people's lives. We're seeing that right now. We have a trust problem: People don't always trust what scientists are saying. People aren't aware of what we mean when we say “likelihood” or “uncertainty.” Probabilities and statistics are tough concepts, and I don’t think we communicate that well. And so to build trust back, I think the first step is to be better about communication and transparency. We need to explain the things that we’re doing and why,  and not just for this public health crisis. There are more issues for which we need public support to move forward, like climate change. 
Science communication is also needed to building equity in the STEM community. If we are better with communication and outreach, underrepresented groups can see themselves in science. Being inclusive is clearly the right thing to do, and plenty of studies show that science benefits from diversity. 
So, how has this fellowship developed your career? Has it had an impact on your research or your career goals?
Before this fellowship, I didn't have much experience outside of presenting and I only was familiar with two main career paths — the tenure track and industry.  In this fellowship, I’ve learned of the multifaceted nature of science communication. A lot of what we are working on now is building engaging videos and getting hands-on experience talking about science on social media. I can now see myself in a career in science outreach.
I think these new skills also will help me when talking about my own work, in order to get people excited about it, or understand how even the most theoretically unrelated science impacts them.  They think, "Oh, science and naked mole-rats? How is that going to affect me? I'm a human.”  Being able to communicate how every aspect of science impacts our lives in some way is an important skill to learn. 
What I never realized about science communication is that there are lots of different strategies. For example, posting about science on social media requires a different skill set than summarizing research articles for the ASRC website or interviewing someone for a podcast. 
The skills we are learning will be valuable no matter which career path we take. Being able to distill your research down to a clear message and highlight the things that are most relevant for people is one of the most useful skills we can build. Most of what we do is understandable only to the people in our immediate field. And yet we talk to each other as if we're all experts in the same thing.
I think we, as a community, need to be better about being able to fit our research into the larger puzzle so people understand that it's all important and we all are answering different, equally important questions.


Submitted on: FEB 8, 2021

Category: General GC News | Student News