It is often thought that science is too complex to be understood by everyone. But through the art of communication and a little bit of self-exploration, scientists, scholars, and health professionals can develop their abilities to communicate and connect across disciplines and with the public, making science accessible to all.

Since 2016, the Center for Communicating Science at Virginia Tech — housed in the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment and catalyzed by Karen DePauw, vice president and dean for graduate education in the Virginia Tech Graduate School — has been an extraordinary resource for students and researchers who wish to build better connections with audiences who exist outside of the laboratory and research space.

Now, with a commitment of funding from the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, the center will be able to continue and expand upon its mission to help researchers and scholars develop the art of connecting across racial, cultural, religious, educational, and academic differences.

“The Fralin Life Sciences Institute is excited to collaborate with the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment to help support the Center for Communicating Science; this partnership aligns with our vision to impact society by taking a problem-centric approach to supporting faculty and students tackling environmental and life sciences-related global challenges,” said Matt Hulver, executive director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “Training students and faculty how to communicate complex scientific ideas to the public is essential to having an impact on society.”

For Patty Raun, director of the Center for Communicating Science and a professor in the School of Performing Arts in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, the commitment of funding from the Fralin Life Sciences Institute represents an infusion of energy that will be used to support the kind of work that the center already does and allow it to expand its offerings as well.

“We can open opportunities for graduate students and faculty researchers to understand what great science communication looks like, invite a variety of folks around the world to be resources, and create new connections between scientists and the community,” said Raun. “Knowing that we have additional support allows us to build on ideas that had been merely dreams until this point, to think about how we want to grow, and to strengthen the center.”

During a 2020 meeting between Hulver and Karen Roberto, executive director of the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment, it became clear that the Center for Communicating Science and the Fralin Life Sciences Institute had strategic objectives that aligned.

“ISCE is delighted that the Fralin Life Sciences Institute is partnering with us to support the Center for Communicating Science,” said Roberto, a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech. “The center has built a strong reputation for itself in helping students and faculty to more clearly and effectively communicate their research to diverse audiences across campus and beyond. This new support will help them reach an even wider audience and continue to increase their offerings.”    

The center is acting on this support already by partnering with The Story Collider and Make It Memorable to bring weekly workshop opportunities to faculty and graduate students this semester. Raun is looking forward to working with folks on campus to plan other programs in the future.

The Center for Communicating Science has hosted and sponsored a plethora of events around campus, such as the Nutshell Games, a competition in which graduate students talk about their research in 90 seconds or less, and Com Sci Con - Virginia Tech, a two-day workshop series that invites young researchers on the Virginia Tech Blacksburg campus to develop, practice, and polish their communication skills.

The center also serves as a clearinghouse for communicating science resources and efforts across campus. One of the most visible results of the new partnership with Fralin is the center’s newly redesigned website, created in collaboration with Alex Crookshanks, the visual communications manager and graphic designer at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.

“It’s been a pleasure working with Alex to make all the resources we have more readily available to users,” said center associate director Carrie Kroehler. “Communicating science tips, reading lists, and website links are available on the website’s resources page. A menu of workshops, intensives, and consultations the center can provide also can be found on the website, along with a new StoryMaps project and lots of other stories that bring researchers and research to life.”

Kroehler encourages anyone working on science communication to contact the center so that information can be added to the center’s website, making the information more widely available and building the community of people committed to clear and engaging communication.

Raun and Kroehler also teach graduate and undergraduate classes that use theater improvisation exercises and writing to help students become more effective at disseminating their research. Students learn how relaxation and deep listening can make their communication more personal, direct, spontaneous, and responsive.

Since Raun developed the course in 2012, more than 400 graduate students have taken GRAD 5144: Communicating Science, a class that uses practice-based pedagogy techniques to teach students about effective communication. The center has also provided science communication workshop experiences for more than 5,000 participants; reached nearly 6,000 people through its science outreach programs; and provided opportunities for more than 700 Virginia Tech faculty and graduate researchers to communicate their research in a variety of venues.

According to Raun, it is imperative that researchers extend their voices outside of their own academic circles. Science communication can not only get the public excited about science, but it can also secure funding for future research.

“There’s no point in doing the research unless the policymakers, the public, and the people who are going to support it can understand and participate in it,” said Raun. “We are a participatory species and if we don’t feel like we are part of something, invested in something, then we won’t give it the energy that it requires.”

As an institute, Fralin Life Sciences Institute consists of 500 researchers across five different buildings. The center will act as a unifying force that can inspire research collaborations and empower researchers in new ways.

“Because the institute’s researchers have such broad research interests, they have to talk to each other across disciplinary boundaries, not just the physical boundaries of separate buildings,” said Raun. “I believe that, over time, each person will start to learn the synergies that might be possible.”

When Raun thinks about science communication, she thinks about fusing glass. “For fusion to work between two pieces of glass with different qualities, the kiln has to increase very, very gradually to high temperatures so that the pieces can find their commonality,” she explained. “The greater the difference, the slower the temperature increase has to be. Connections between people are the same. Slow, deliberate, energized exchange builds the bridges across differences.” 

The same metaphor applies to communicating science, Raun said. “Put art and science together, and through the heat of intention, conversation, and commitment they fuse into something both beautiful and useful.

“I want us as a community, as a society, as a culture, to start to understand how our energy propels good science forward.”

- Written by Kendall Daniels