The conference featured four panel discussions and over 25 experts from a diverse range of science communication careers. PHOTO COURTESY OF ZACHARY GUY/COMSCICONCAN

Science communicators from universities across Canada sharpened their skills at ComSciConCAN, the country’s first national science communication conference for graduate students, held from July 18 to 20 at McMaster University. 

The two-and-a-half-day event drew inspiration from the US-based ComSciCon workshop series on science communication, which was first held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2013.

ComSciCon has since expanded to include flagship workshops across the US, but ComSciConCAN marks the first time the conference has been hosted in a different country.

The inaugural Canadian conference featured four panel discussions, six hands-on workshops, and over 25 experts from a diverse range of science communication careers.

In attendance were 50 graduate students from 26 different institutions across Canada, who were selected out of a pool of over 400 applicants from a wide array of scientific backgrounds.

Conference trains students with skills in science communication

To Dr. Maria Drout, a member of the ComSciConCAN organizing committee and professor at U of T’s Dunlap Institute, the conference’s main goal was to give graduate students the tools they need to succeed in any science communication endeavour they choose to pursue.

“The idea is to empower graduate students to be leaders in whatever field they choose, and to be able to effectively communicate in those ways,” Drout said to The Varsity.

“No matter what field you’re in, your effectiveness comes down to not only how good you are at the technical aspects, but [also] how well you can share your findings.”

To this end, the workshops and panels held throughout the conference focused on training graduate students with the skills they need to succeed in all forms of science communication — from working in media and journalism to effecting change through science policy and activism.

In the “Media Interview Skills” workshop, for example, science communicator and Daily Planet television series co-host Dr. Dan Riskin taught students how to effectively talk about science “outside their wheelhouse” of expertise.

The students participated in mock media interviews and learned how to craft key talking points to use in the face of even the most unexpected of interview questions.

They also had the chance to present their research in one-minute ‘pop talks’ that were meant to be engaging and accessible to a non-expert audience. Audience members could hold up cards labelled as either “JARGON” or “AWESOME” to keep the talks on track and jargon-free.

Another activity was the Write-A-Thon, during which attendees were divided into peer editing groups and assigned an expert reviewer to help craft a publication-ready science communication piece. 

Many of the pieces written at previous renditions of the conference have since gone on to be published in major media outlets.

The importance of representation in science media

In addition to gaining hands-on experience, a running theme throughout the conference was the importance of representation — both in scientific fields as well as in science communication endeavours.

In the “Communicating with Diverse Audiences” panel discussion, Professor Hilding Neilson, from U of T’s Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, spoke about acknowledging and listening to unique audience perspectives. Neilson works on blending Indigenous knowledge into the U of T astronomy curriculum, and he shared his experiences by incorporating those knowledge pools into astronomy.

Dr. Carrie Bourassa, the scientific director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Institute of Indigenous People’s Health, also spoke about the importance of prioritizing Indigenous sources of knowledge. Bourassa was a speaker in the panel discussion on “Communicating through Policy & Activism,” and currently leads the advancement of a national health research agenda aimed at improving and promoting the health of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples in Canada.

“[The conference] made people think on a number of occasions,” Drout said. “Not just learn immediate skills, but actually think about how to position themselves and their research in the context of society in Canada.”

Drout also told The Varsity that she was really pleased with how the conference went, and feels excited about ComSciConCAN’s potential going forward.

“This was just the launching-off point. The hope is for it to continue to grow, because clearly there is a huge appetite, and many students who’d like to participate,” she said.

“Within Canada, we’re now hoping to launch many more workshops in the next few years — both continue to do these nationwide conferences, but also do local versions in many cities across the country.”

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