Grad students host first communication science conference
March 18, 2019
For Brandon Semel, Dr. Seuss has become a key to communicating his Madagascar climate change research.
“I think of lemurs as being like the fluffy bar-ba-loots up in the truffula trees in 'The Lorax,"” said Semel, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the fish and wildlife conservation program, about presenting to the public.
“Putting yourself in the shoes of the people you’re hoping to talk to is key,” Semel said. “And most people know a Dr. Seuss book.”
Semel was one of about 50 Virginia Tech graduate students who recently honed their abilities to connect complex topics to people as part of the campus’ first ComSciCon-Virginia Tech.
Originating from Harvard University, ComSciCon is a workshop series focused on science communication skills organized by graduate students, for graduate students. Universities, disciplines, or regions are able to franchise the series for free simply by agreeing to keep in line with the conference’s format.
Virginia Tech’s version of the conference was the brainchild of Allison Hutchison, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the rhetoric and writing program who served as the organizing committee chair. Hutchison said she began connecting last fall with other Hokies passionate about communicating science to make the two-day event happen.
“I think it was just a matter of finding the kindred spirits on campus,” she said.
One of her first calls was to Patty Raun and Carrie Kroehler, the director and associate director, respectively, of Virginia Tech’s Center for Communicating Science, which launched in spring 2017.
“Our mission is to create and support opportunities for scientists, scholars, health professionals, and others to develop their abilities to communicate and connect,” said Kroehler. “We were thrilled when a graduate student approached us last fall to ask whether we'd be interested in partnering with her to bring ComSciCon to Virginia Tech for the first time.”
Along with the Center for Communicating Science, Hutchison was also able to partner with the Graduate School, the Graduate Life Center, the Global Change Center, the Rhetoric Club, University Libraries, and the Center for Humanities. The latter two groups also hosted the lunchtime speaker, University of Minnesota’s David Perry, who spoke about “The Public Scholar in the Age of Twitter,” and a writing workshop specifically geared for faculty and students in the humanities and social sciences. Those efforts added about 30 more attendees.
The result was a ComSciCon-Virginia Tech that featured workshops and speakers on topics ranging from data visualization and tweeting to working with media outlets and crafting research stories in ways that make them both accessible and engaging to the public.
“The way you talk about research and the way you talk about science on campus is not the same as how you would talk about it out in the community,” Hutchison said.
And she believes using science to serve the public is an important part of Virginia Tech’s core mission.
“We are an R-I [Research-I] institute, but we’re also a land-grant institute,” Hutchison said.
Whitney Woelmer, a first-year master's student studying biological sciences, agreed and said she felt being able to successfully communicate research to the public was a critical part of making that research usable and worthwhile.
“Science without an application is just science, but when you are able to put it to use, it affects everyone,” Woelmer said. “I think finding a way to engage with people is the first step.”
— Written by Travis Williams