Science graduate students hone communication skills at inaugural ComSciConCAN conference

U of T students, faculty represented at Canada’s first national science communication conference for graduate students

Science graduate students hone communication skills at inaugural ComSciConCAN conference

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.”

How to survive a conference

Tips for a first-timer or seasoned conference-goer

How to survive a conference

Conferences can be jarring, especially for students. Spending hours — sometimes days — with your brain turned on, networking with your science idols, and potentially presenting your work is a lot to handle. Despite this, conferences can make up the most exciting moments of your degree. Follow along for tips on how to not only survive a conference, but also how to make the most out of your experience — whether it’s your first or your 50th.

Before the conference

1. Set a goal

Ask yourself what you want out of the conference. Is your plan to network and set up future collaborations? Maybe you just want to soak in as much information as possible. U of T PhD student Samantha Athey follows a method that she learned from the Hello PhD podcast, called the 3-2-1 plan: “I plan to meet 3 potential collaborators, reconnect with 2 colleagues and leave the conference with 1 new idea or project to take back home!” Regardless of what your goals are, articulate them before you go, so that you can stay on track once you’re there.

2. Decide which talks you want to go to

If you are going to a large conference, there’s a good chance that there will be multiple talks happening at once. Look at the conference schedule ahead of time, and make note of the talks that you are most interested in. There are typically only a couple of minutes between presentations and it is much less stressful when you already know where you’re going next.

3. Contact people you want to meet

No matter how confident you are, meeting researchers from your field can be nerve-wracking and difficult when everyone else at the conference has the same plan as you. Contacting the people that you want to meet ahead of time is a great way to guarantee that you’ll actually meet with them, and this proactiveness will set you apart from other networkers — unless everyone else reads these tips too and the system is now saturated.

During the conference

4. Bring snacks

Just because food is provided doesn’t mean that it’s going to be good. I have had conference food that ranged from chef-made seafood platters to lukewarm cheese pizzas. Bring healthy snacks that you enjoy in case your conference has catered food that’s only going to leave you groggy. In this same vein, don’t drink coffee at every coffee break. There will likely be multiple breaks, but no one needs that much caffeine.

5. Get comfy

While conferences call for some level of professionalism, which will vary between fields, don’t feel the need to dress to the nines. You will carry yourself much better in clothes that you are comfortable in, rather than ones that you think other people will want to see you in. That being said, it is generally better to be overdressed than underdressed.

6. Ignore the fear of missing out and skip talks that you’re not interested in

Conferences are exhausting. Sitting out from a session will help conserve your energy for topics or people you actually want to listen to. Don’t feel guilty about this — I promise that you won’t be the only attendee playing hooky.

After the conference

7. Explore!

This tip is subject to your supervisor’s discretion, but leave yourself a couple of days before or after the conference to explore the areas outside the conference building. There’s a good chance that you would have never visited the location if it weren’t for the event, so take advantage of your situation. It’s also a good idea to explore before the conference, instead of after, when your brain is fried.

8. Follow up with the fruits of your networking labour

Don’t take it personally, but with the overload of information that conferences bring, people you had long fruitful conversations with might forget you. Even if you did not set up a specific collaboration, emailing the people you networked with within a few days of the conference is a great way to keep that relationship alive.

9. Give yourself a pat on the back

You survived! Now go hang up your lanyard name tag as a badge of honour.