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Science communication: 5 new frontiers

When I left high school, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life: make stories.

I wanted to draw comics, I wanted to write stories, I wanted to make movies.

So I went to art school, where I learned filmmaking, animation, graphic design, drawing, color theory.  Everything I needed to know to make that dream a reality.  But the platform was missing.  YouTube was brand new, and I was still on dialup internet.  Many things were going wrong in my life and the timing just didn’t work out.

Several years later, I went back to school for science, and if you’re new to this blog, you may not know that I’m now in my 4th year of a PhD program for Cancer Biology.

But I still love telling stories.

That’s why I’m very excited by science communication.  Much of the science communication work I see is writing (in print and on web), but there’s a bold new world that we need to further explore.  And I’ll get to this new frontier in a moment, but first….

What I love about science communication

I went to the number one high school in Georgia, which isn’t saying so much, since Georgia at the time was ranked pretty close to last in education based on test scores.  However, more importantly, my high school was a Grammy Gold Signature School, a National Magnet School of Excellence, and had a plethora of awards marking it as a school for success.  I am very proud of this, and I loved my high school while I was there.  Looking back, I still marvel at the encouragement and artistic immersion.

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It wasn’t perfect, by far.  We were taught that evolution was “just a theory”, and we weren’t taught any details of it.  We didn’t have much of the fancy technology that I see nowadays.  But most of my teachers really tried to engage us beyond just lectures.

I particularly remember playing Laser Disc games with the whole class to learn about space and the ocean.  The class, divided into groups, went on “missions” and competed to see who knew the most.  I wasn’t the smartest kid in my class and certainly not the first pick for any kind of team.  However, things made so much more sense when presented as a game.  These games were able to engage me in ways I often couldn’t be (because of mental health issues).  I did particularly well in these sections, and I don’t think it’s difficult to understand why.

The discoveries and possibilities in science are amazing to me, but an engaging message is often communicated in bland ways to the general public.  Of course, science is often sensationalized, which is a problem itself and beyond the scope of this post.  Recently, I completed a series of posts about careers in science, and discussed science writing.  Science writing has its own section on myIDP, a site about careers in science that can help you evaluate your skills and interests.  But science communication is much more than just writing.  Let’s talk about how.

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Beyond science writing

I learn much better when I am engaged.  I’ve always loved comics, movies, and games.  Even though I enjoy reading, I always wished I could see in real life the visual elements I imagined from the books.  To this day, I still love picture books for this reason (they are also rather relaxing to read, to be honest).  This is why scientists love models.

It takes all that data and condenses it down into a (hopefully) easy to understand model.  But how can we move this into a more visual and interactive environment?

Frontiers of science communication

1. Video

Video is not new.  Mr. Wizard, Carl Sagan, David Attenborough, Bill Nye…most of us are familiar with these names and the impact they had on the generations they are associated with.  Public broadcasting and science programming on cable TV have provided us with some amazing video content, sometimes with real scientists and other times with some amazingly charismatic people teaching us cool stuff about our world.

Now, YouTube is another great place to find content.  Check out these:

There are TONS of others, and I really encourage you to look at and consider how video can help you communicate your science.  How do you simplify your science so that people outside your field can understand?  What are the most relevant details?  Should you show data?  How can you make your data easier to understand?

3. Science art

Art is a natural extension of science writing.  Scientists already create art when they create models or figures.  However, I would argue that more scientists should find trained artists to help them communicate their science.  As a scientist who was also trained as a fine artist, I find that science is ignoring a major collaborator.  Yet many scientists enjoy pursuing creative endeavors.

You like science.  You like art.  Now it’s time to support artists (they need money to eat, too) to help you communicate your science better.

Check out these profiles on Twitter: The Vexed Muddler, IAmSciArt, and many more if you just search #sciart.

How can you use that art?  Great question.  Read on for more ideas.

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3. Animation

A logical flow from art, yeah?

Much of what we study as scientists is not so clear to see.  I study genomics, and it isn’t always something I can just show someone.  Animation can help. It can take abstract concepts and transform them into nuggets of information that are more easily digestible.   Several of the video pages I shared above employ simple animations that really elevate their messages.

I’ve been creating animations for years, from frame-by-frame drawings (traditional 2-D animation) to very simple 3D renderings. I recently created my first digital animation as a supplement to a press release  I wrote.  I learned a lot and am hoping to finish another soon.

4. Games

Maybe I’m crazy, but I’ve learned a lot from playing games.  Ever since I played “Mario Teaches Typing” as a kid, I’ve loved playing educational games.  And I’m lucky to have a talented friend who has inspired me to think about gaming in science.  There are plenty of games for kids to learn science, but why stop there?

Free platforms like Unity provide access to game making that we can all get involved with.  And, again, hiring someone to work with you to create a simple game illustrating the scientific problem you’re working with could be very powerful.

Here’s one game that recently caught my eye because it has an interesting story, but attempts to integrate concepts of organic chemistry as part of the game.

5. Interactive Websites

We’ve all been to a website that “WOW”ed us.  A good website can help you (1) recruit graduate students and post-docs, (2) connect with potential donors, and (3) have a hub to send those interested in your research.  An INTERACTIVE website can help you tell a story about your science.  You can use art, animation, games, and video to enhance your site and make it a destination for your field to communicate science to the world.

There are some great long-form journalism pieces that I love to use as examples: Tomato Can Blues & Snow Fall

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Our society continues to devalue artists despite the fact that they are behind every product we buy, almost every image we see, and every structure we stand in.  We set aside budgets for doing the science, but not for communicating it.  I would argue that this should change.  While writing our grants, we should consider how we will get the knowledge we gain to the public.  We should employ artists, designers, animators, and game makers to help us with this.

Luckily, there are several scientists who have switched to careers in science communication.  I’m working hard to finish my Ph.D., but I was trained as a fine artist, took classes in design, was a student of film & television, do freelance web design, and now am learning about animation and game design.  I hope to someday be able to employ others (specialists) to help me turn science into something accessible to all.

Are you interested?  Do you want to work together to create an immersive way of communicating your science?  Contact me.  Together, we can create a more exciting science communication world to increase science literacy and inform policy-making decisions.

So, who are your favorite science communicators?  What grabs you about the way they communicate?  How can you employ that in your own work?

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