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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.”

Science communication in the modern age

Raw Talk Live panelists share insights on science literacy and engagement

Science communication in the modern age

Raw Talk Podcast a project spearheaded by graduate students from The Institute of Medical Science (IMS) at U of T hosted its first live show at JLABS on May 30. A two-part panel discussion, Raw Talk Live explored the current climate of science communication.

Traditionally, science was communicated through conferences, where researchers in the same or similar fields shared their findings with their peers. The responsibility for communicating this research to the public fell on teachers and science journalists. These days, researchers also communicate their findings outside of the academic community through scientific outreach and the media.

Public engagement in science

Tetyana Pekar, an IMS alum and moderator of the first panel, asked panelists what they thought the status quo for public engagement in science was and how it could be improved. The panelists all felt that the status quo was changing for the better, but that there was room for improvement.

One key concern was that scientific outreach tends to stay within the ivory towers of academia, and getting the general public to take interest in science is an ongoing struggle.

A 2017 survey conducted by the Ontario Science Centre found 47 per cent of Canadians do not believe in or understand the science behind global warming.

“There is this aspect of the public’s awareness of science that’s incomplete and they’re going to celebrities for information and that’s very troubling,” said Dan Weaver, a PhD candidate in the Department of Physics at U of T.

The results from a 2011 analysis indicate that students from underrepresented or underprivileged backgrounds have less access to science outreach initiatives, which further deepens these misunderstandings as these students are likely deterred from learning about science or pursuing a scientific career.

For Doina Oncel, founder of hEr VOLUTION, a non-profit organization in Toronto that empowers youth in underserved communities to enter STEM, outreach means that “We don’t [just] empower people, we give them tools to empower themselves.”

When Weaver and his research team traveled to Nunavut, they conducted science outreach activities with students from a local school. They showed the students how scientific instruments are used in research to make becoming a scientist a more concrete possibility.

Scientists also benefit from engaging with lay audiences about their research.

“I think the patient [and] parent voice in research is important. I think we have stories to tell and things to say that are valued in the research world,” said Connie Putterman, whose journey in science communication began when her son was diagnosed with autism 18 years ago.

The speakers agreed that citizens have a large impact on science policy, and, in turn, on scientific research. According to the Canadian Science Policy Centre founder and CEO Mehrdad Hariri, by creating a culture of public engagement in scientific research through initiatives like citizen science, we can better defend the integrity of science.


STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY

New methods of science communication

Eryn Tong, a Raw Talk segment host, asked speakers in the second panel what they thought effective science communication would look like in an ideal world.

According to Dr. Vicky Forster, a postdoctoral fellow at SickKids, science should be made more accessible through open access publications and accessible language. The other panelists echoed this sentiment. Especially as one in three Canadians are unable to follow science reports published in the media, creativity is necessary when reporting science accurately and in a way that is understood by non-expert audiences.

“What we’re seeing is that there’s a real appetite… to take content and customize it and make it so that it’s consumable in ways that people can navigate it in [a] non-linear fashion,” said Kevin Millar, Senior Vice President of Creative and Medical Science at INVIVO Communications, a digital healthcare agency that creates visual aids for communicating science.

Millar added that Canada should invest more time and talent into communicating science more effectively and for specific audiences.

Helen Kontozopoulos, co-founder of the Innovation Lab in the Department of Computer Science at U of T, pointed out that bringing different voices to the narrative could also help change the way scientific research is shared.

Elah Feder, U of T alum and co-host of science podcast Undiscovered, added that communicating the scientific process is equally important. “People just see a headline that coffee is bad for you and then next week they see that coffee is good for you and I think [they get confused] because they don’t understand the process,” said Feder.