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Two unlikely UD collaborators an engineer and a journalist
teamed up to develop a program that helps UD students explain their
research in terms mere mortals might understand.
dear graduate student, will discover the biochemical key that locks
cancer out forever. Maybe you will find a way to turn down the global
thermostat so Planet Earth doesnt drown in its own oceans. Maybe you
will figure out what dark matter really is.
But Ernest Rutherford, considered the father of nuclear physics, demands more of you, ever so much more.
An alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid, the 1908 Nobel Prize winner once said.
Thats no small feat, of course, and its not the barmaids fault.
Researchers and scientists steeped as they are in the technical
language and shorthand of their specific disciplines develop a level
of expertise that is not easily translated.
In a national study
released in August, the Pew Research Center showed increasing public
confidence in research scientists and more than 70 percent of those
surveyed reported a good opinion of those researchers. But in the same
study, almost half of those surveyed said research scientists were not
good communicators. They need help with messaging.
I enjoy science communication, said Lauren McCabe, who is pursuing a
doctorate in materials science at the University of Delawares College of Engineering,
focusing on such things as nanotechnology, molecular beam epitaxy,
quantum dots and photonic crystals. But it is one thing a lot of us
arent very good at.
McCabe found something at UD that helped the five-part Words For
Nerds seminar developed by two unlikely UD collaborators to give
graduate students training and practice in the art of explaining complex
ideas to street-level audiences.
Historically, this is something engineers and scientists are not too good at, said Joshua Zide, professor of materials science and engineering and an expert in nanotechnology. And when youre bad at it, bad things happen.
Zide discussed this a few years ago with Dawn Fallik, associate professor of English, who teaches journalism and writes about medicine and science for major outlets, including The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
And on their own time they built this program.
Were like the oddest couple ever, Fallik said. But we just hit it
off. I think we both have a nerdy sense of humor and Im fascinated by
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Profs. Joshua Zide and
Dawn Fallik sit in the front row as graduate students explain their
research in the final event of the 2019 Words for Nerds seminar.
They enlisted the help of expert presenters, including Gene Park of The Washington Post, UD alum Charles Bergquist of NPRs Science Friday,
Dr. Dara Kass, creator of the FemInEm campaign, and UD marine scientist
Danielle Dixson, all of whom have significant track records as
A Graduate College Innovation Grant provided financial support for the program.
I was just hoping enough students would sign up, Fallik said. We
got the grant at the end of December and the program was for spring.
Not to worry. Ninety-two students applied for 25 slots. Another round is planned for spring semester of 2020.
Communicating your thoughts about scientific research to a broad
audience and explaining its impact outside the academic world are
essential skills that all doctoral students should develop, said Doug
Doren, interim vice provost for graduate and professional education and
dean of the Graduate College at UD.
Unfortunately, many STEM [science, technology, engineering and
mathematics] students do not get enough opportunities to focus on
improving their public communications skills, he said. Words For Nerds
aims to fill this gap and serves as a complement to the core research
training where UD graduate programs already excel. The course also
brings students from a wide range of graduate programs together and
gives them a chance to share perspectives and new ideas.
As an expert in nanotechnology, a field that makes machines out of
tiny particles you cant even see with your eyes, Zide understands its
hard for most of us to grasp such work. He also knows its important to
find effective ways to connect the dots for people.
There is no big science lobby, he said. And people are not
particularly well-informed. Scientists speak a different language, a
very, very precise language.
Strong communication skills are a super power for those who hope to
have effective interactions with lawmakers, grant officers, business
leaders, taxpayers, other researchers, even family and friends. Such
skills often translate to greater opportunity, increased financial
support and stronger partnerships.
Zide pointed to a situation in 2016, when a researcher at Georgia
Tech was named three times in former U.S. Senator Jeffrey Flakes
annual Wastebook, a list of government research grants the Arizona
Republican saw as wasteful.
Instead of defensive indignation, David Hu responded with a remarkable Confessions of a Wasteful Scientist blog post for Scientific American. He explained the potential impact of the three projects mentioned on the list and urged others to go and do likewise.
A scientist has a duty to explain her work to others, Hu wrote. I
encourage the public to continue to ask researchers about the importance
of their work.
The answers arent necessarily easy. But when was easy a researchers path?
If you try to speak in broad enough terms to be generally
understandable, often it starts to sound generic, Zide said. People
may understand the idea of solar energy, but that subject can very
quickly get into detail that is less accessible. Is the specificity
important? People in general care about the application of the work
rather than the details. That creates a challenge for work that is more
fundamental. I think people want to be understood and there is no
shortcut, no magic way to do it.
Doug Doren, interim vice provost for graduate and
professional education and interim dean of the Graduate College, congratulates
Ashley Kennedy on her prize-winning presentation at the Words for Nerds
finale last spring.
Fallik is practiced at steering such conversations because her own reporting demands it.
As a medical and science reporter with a background in data
analysis, I spend a lot of time talking to researchers about their work
for stories in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post,
she said. "I use the phrase Let me make sure I understand what you're
saying' frequently. I know I'm not an expert in their field and I don't
want to get anything wrong."
It is not self-evident to scientists and other researchers that
mastering communication skills and learning about social media are
The biggest challenge for the graduate students is that they have
been in their field for so long, completely immersed in their technical
language, they dont realize that the vast majority of the public does
not know what they consider to be common knowledge, Fallik said.
But the more they can become comfortable communicating to the
general public on the platform where they get information, whether
its Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or whatever the better. If theyre
smart, theyre interested.
Add to this the tendency of some humans to pretend they understand
to bluff or guess at what the meaning might be and the information gap
gets worse, not better.
As a journalist, Fallik knows that is non-negotiable.
I remember starting to explain something to her once, Zide said. I
said, If you have a thermal gradient. And she stopped me right
there. We use those terms as a shorthand, but most of the public might
not know what gradient means. And if the public doesnt understand you
or thinks you are trying to talk down to people, well, if we arent
really careful were going to be misunderstood.
Dixson said she was impressed by the students who participated in the
program. At the graduate level, she said, they are constantly learning
new terms, new techniques, new ideas and developing their use of
scientific language. This was another angle on communication.
In an age where scientific findings are always questioned by the
general public and the majority of funding comes from tax dollars,
students must learn how to speak to an untrained audience on the
importance of their research, the findings that resulted from said
research and most important the impact the findings have on the
lives of the general public, she said.
The sessions in the spring of 2019 included Writing for Advocacy,
Data Visualization, Social Media Messaging, Pitching and Podcasts.
Students developed their own presentations and practiced them.
On the night of the final presentations, they gathered in Memorial
Hall and, one by one, explained their research such things as coastal
engineering, the color of light, vehicle-to-grid energy technology, how
gender makes a difference in recovery from substance abuse,
osteoarthritis, how the brain makes sense of things, inequality in STEM
fields, artificial intelligence, how blockchain technology could improve
transparency in disaster management, and much more.
The judges brought plenty of expertise to the panel, including Doren,
Barbara Adde, a UD alum who now is strategic communications director
for NASA; and Tina Hesman Saey, senior writer at Science News, who has a
doctorate in molecular genetics.
It was really interesting, really fun and I found it great that so
many people were interested that some had to be turned away, Saey said.
Most of them did comparably well to what Ive seen other early-career
scientists doing. But some of them were real standouts, who clearly had a
gift for communication. Even some whose presentations werent as clear,
I felt like having this experience probably had given them more
confidence to talk about their work and thats not training people
generally get. Theyre told you have to give a talk, but nobody ever
told them how do you do that.
Assisting with such efforts might be a bit self-serving, Saey said
with a laugh. If I call any of them for an interview, theyll
presumably be able to explain in terms my readers will understand.
Ashley Kennedy, who was about to earn her doctorate in entomology and
wildlife ecology, won the top prize of $1,000 for demonstrating her use
of crowd-sourcing while studying the kinds of insects important to
She showed how she launched a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter
account (@whatdobirdseat) that caught on with like-minded souls and
produced thousands of photographs documenting bird menus throughout
North America. She made a brief video and it all helped her make the case that native plantings play a powerful role in providing food for birds.
Garden as if life depended on it, she said. Because actually, it does.
Kennedy now works at the U.S. Armys Aberdeen (Md.) Proving Ground, studying tick-borne disease.
McCabe, the engineering doctoral student, put what she learned to immediate use.
I have definitely benefited from things we learned in the program, McCabe said. I have a small science blog Small World Big Impacts
that I update when graduate research allows me some extra time. After
the program I set up an Instagram account for it as a different
platform to get the word out using what I learned, particularly from the
session we had with Gene Park where he talked about reaching people on
different web platforms. It's not huge, but I recently hit 50 followers
with a small, steady growing trend. If I get even one non-scientist to
learn something new and exciting with each post, then I consider that a
Article by Beth Miller; photos by Lane McLaughlin; illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase
Published Dec. 5, 2019