By Michael Hallinan
Science has been a consistently developing field, with tons of new finds, new scientists, and a general increase in how many people are involved and engaged with the discipline. However, my undergraduate peers and I have found that effective communication is an often underdeveloped skill within science. We spend so much time learning calculus, learning physics, learning about environmental systems, yet never seem to spend much learning how to effectively share what we learn with others.
As of 2022, I’m entering my second year of undergraduate studies, and I’ve already seen the aforementioned communication divide as I share what I learn with family and friends. I entered science because I found the developments in biotechnology to be super interesting and to have great potential to better our world. However, science isn’t exclusive to scientists. There are policymakers, governments, educators, stakeholders, voters, and tons of other people who need to engage and interact with science, and often cannot because of the language and lack of accessibility regarding scientific research. As a result, I still want to pursue research in biotechnology, but I want much of my work to center open communication and accessibility within science.
Thankfully, I was offered an internship with the Time Scavengers organization, and was granted the opportunity to further develop my communication skills through practice and learning opportunities. Weekly, me and the other interns got to hear a variety of scientists of various backgrounds teach about different factors of communications, which was an amazing opportunity. The major topics covered were effective storytelling, identities’ role in communication, effective teaching methods, accessibility, and compromise. However, although each of these topics was spoken on, there was so much more with each presenter having a unique background and journey into communications.
Besides these presentations, I also could practice communication through summarizing scientific research on topics from as broad as chimpanzee communication to global water evaporation with varying degrees of challenge. It was through this work that I truly realized how essential science communications work is. Much of the research I read through used jargon or failed to explain concepts or methods in a way that someone outside of the subjects’ field would understand. This meant that with most of the research I read through, to even understand a page, there was a lot of additional research and dictionary searching that had to be done. If I can’t understand their work without lots of additional effort, how can we expect those without a science background to do so? This was the biggest challenge I felt my experience within this internship helped bridge.
Each article presented a unique challenge of learning something brand new and learning all the language and nuance to a degree where I could communicate that information to others. This was by far the most challenging part of the internship, but luckily, I had a lot of help. Every week I’d write about two articles summarizing papers I had chosen on a variety of topics. Sometimes this was a pretty straightforward process, but more often the not required the aforementioned searching and struggling to understand. After I finished this, though, I’d sent my article off to my mentor and we could discuss and edit. I got a lot of really useful tips about writing, especially having another perspective on my work. I think the most helpful information I got was just trying to be simple. A lot of writing, both academic and artistic, encourages high-level vocabulary or complex ways of communicating things. Which sometimes is valuable and arguably necessary, but for accessibility is not always the best. Many of the challenges in my writing were related to this either in complex words or structure that could be easily simplified down to something else. This not only makes it easier for non-native English speakers but also maybe those who are not as familiar with academic writing or the topic to understand. It seems like such basic advice, but really being simple when appropriate is so valuable, and something writers might not consider because of the culture around writing.
In addition to this advice, within both my written articles and the presentations, there was a general focus on how to better connect with a variety of audiences. Sometimes this meant trying to use comparisons or more ordinary language to reach others, and sometimes it meant including more of yourself or relevant applications of your work to allow the audience to engage more with the topic. This type of discussion was something I hadn’t really engaged much with and felt as if there were so many perspectives that got to share and be heard in this experience, both intern and expert alike.
Furthermore, I think it’s really important to acknowledge a lot of the direct and indirect discussion on accessibility that went on. Besides language and comprehension accessibility, there was an amazing presentation on alt text. Although I’ve heard of alt text, I never really knew how to properly put it into my work, what its true value is, and what makes good alt text. These things were touched on and discussed, and I could practice creating alt text for each of my articles. This meant describing images or graphs and really focusing on what information is being communicated through visual means, as well as how to explain that in full value to someone who is using a screen reader. For graphs, this meant describing the type of graph, variables, general structure, and any other important information. While for pictures, this meant explaining things like the perspective, the context, color, or any other important visual cues and information needed to properly create meaningful alt text. This forced me to really think about how to analyze what information is portrayed through visual means both directly and indirectly, later converting this into written information. This is going to be imperative to my future work and really opened my eyes more in terms of digital accessibility.
Overall, this internship was an extremely valuable opportunity. I not only got to engage and practice communicating challenging topics, but I also got to hear from so many perspectives and other amazing scientists. Each of the interns, presenters, and mentors all had something to contribute and expanded my view on what science communication is. Science communication isn’t just for National Geographic Writers, it’s not just for podcasts hosts, it’s something all scientists, both writing-focused and non-writing focused, should consider developing skills in. It’s in the way we describe a figure, in the way we share our findings with policymakers, it’s in the way we describe our job positions to others. Science communication is all around us, and to ineffectively communicate in science is to lessen the value of your work. This opportunity brought a lot of practice and new ideas to my writing, and I hope to continue to use these in all facets of my work in the future, as well as encourage others to think more critically about the way we communicate even if it’s not the core of their work.