Virginia Tech students recently learned that a well-written scientific abstract is helpful, but a good elevator speech can be more important for acquiring support for research projects.

Graduate students — from the departments of fish and wildlife conservation, biological sciences, entomology, and more — practiced talking about their research with experts from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. 

The Global Change Center at Virginia Tech partnered with one of its faculty affiliates, Dana Hawley, an associate professor in biological sciences in the College of Science, to sponsor the workshop.  

The students — the majority of whom are affiliated with the Interfaces of Global Change interdisciplinary graduate education program at Virginia Tech — learned ways to better connect with their audience through improvisational acting and exercises dedicated to distilling the message of their research.

For one exercise, the center’s staff brought in three nonscientists to try to understand the meaning of an abstract written for a scientific audience.  

The abstract, which detailed research on the dirt-eating behaviors of lemurs in Madagascar, was written by Brandon Semel of McHenry, Illinois, a Ph.D. student studying fish and wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment.

Graduate student Carl Wepking of Lancaster, Wisconsin, a Ph.D. student in biological sciences,  read the abstract to the workshop attendees and attempted to distill the message of the research for the non-scientists. The difference in the nonscientists’ understanding post-translation was significant.

"Having the scientific abstract translated into everyday language made a huge difference in my ability to fully grasp the depth and importance of Brandon’s research," said Michael Stowe, the communications director for Virginia Tech News and one of the nonscientists. "One of the most rewarding aspects of my job as a university communicator is promoting the faculty's world class research. To reach a broad audience, it's vital to explain and tell the story behind the research without getting caught up in scientific jargon."

Semel said that he learned a lot from watching his abstract translated from a piece for a scientific audience to one for a general audience.

"I found the Alan Alda workshop to be a very valuable experience," Semel said. "Having worked in science for so long, it’s easy to lose touch with how foreign some of the concepts and jargon I use are to people who don't use them on a daily basis. Even among fellow scientists, the words I use to talk about the lemurs that I study may be totally foreign. It's one thing to discuss 'prosimian geophagy' among colleagues, but using common terms like 'lemur dirt-eating' makes my work much more interesting to those who don't study primates. It's all a matter of knowing your audience."

In other workshop exercises, graduate students practiced using hand gestures and metaphors to better explain their research and perfected their 'elevator speeches', which one student describes in a blog post.

"Because science is complicated and labor intensive, it’s easy for scientists to get carried away with wanting to include many details upfront rather than getting to the punchline," writes Jen Wagner of New City, New York, a Ph.D. student in fish and wildlife conservation. "But science communication is not about rambling about every detail of your research; it is about being able to connect with someone and create a conversation."

Training scientists in the skills necessary for science communication is a central aim of the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech, the Graduate School at Virginia Tech, and the university. Virginia Tech offers a graduate-level class in Communicating Science that has been popular among students and is modeled on the work of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. Graduate students of any major may take the class.