Communication is an important part of being a scientist. It is how we secure grant money and instrument time through proposal writing and how we share progress in our respective fields through peer-reviewed journal articles and conference proceedings. Yet perhaps the most important type of communicating a scientist can do is what we call science communication, or more lovingly SciComm, in which scientists share their work—its significance and its implications—to a non-expert audience.
SciComm can take place through a variety of media, from visits to grade schools or writing popular science articles to engaging with people on social media or in public lectures. One of my favorite ways to share my science is through lectures, whether they be at high schools or at undergraduate seminars or to audiences of the “general public” comprised of science enthusiasts or people just eager to learn more about the world around them.
There are numerous reasons why a scientist might present their work, specifically to a non-expert audience. Public speaking is a way in which scientists can inform others about how humanity’s knowledge of our universe is advancing. Not only is this beneficial in piquing the public’s interest in science and perhaps maintaining enthusiasm for science that helps convince federal governments to fund scientific research. Moreover, many scientists feel that it is their civic duty to communicate to the public given that much of their research activities are funded by taxpayer dollars.
When scientists communicate more effectively, science thrives.
— Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer (2015), "Effective Communication, Better Science," Scientific American guest blog
Speaking to non-expert audiences—especially ones in which students are present—can also expose students to areas of research outside their curriculum. SciComm also provides an exposé of scientific identities revealing that most scientists are not, in fact, spitting images of Albert Einstein. For early-career scientists, including graduate students, science communication is also a means by which we can get our names out there and be recognized for our work and perhaps insert ourselves into networks beneficial for job searches and establishing ourselves as accomplished researchers.
There are also some frivolous benefits to giving lectures about your work. At institutions of higher education, you get the opportunity to speak with faculty and students and feel out possible job avenues, explore opportunities for collaboration, and think and talk about your research differently from your usual approach when you are the thick of it. You also get free meals typically and, on occasion, an honorarium to pay you for the work involved in preparing for and giving a talk.
This past September, I visited the East Coast to be reunited with my husband who had gone back to Pennsylvania for most of August. While there, I went on a bit of a speaking tour in the area surrounding south-central PA. My motivation for doing this consisted of the reasons given above, but also because I wanted my visit to PA to count as work and not my vacation for the year.
Over the course of two weeks, I gave six talks at five institutions. The bulk (four) of these talks were about astrochemistry broadly as a field in which I touched on the observational astronomy research I am working on as well; these were given in undergraduate science seminars at Mount St. Mary’s University, Lycoming College, Gettysburg College, and Dickinson College. Another talk was about my experience as a Fulbrighter, from the application process to living in Germany, given to students at my alma mater, Dickinson College, who were either currently applying for a grant or were interested in applying in the future. The last talk was co-hosted by the York County Astronomical Society and York College of Pennsylvania and was about the history of radio astronomy and why the field is important and has been groundbreaking for how we study our wider universe.
So how did I organize this speaking tour as a graduate student fresh out of her second year? I more or less went through these steps.
DECIDE YOU WANT TO GIVE SOME TALKS AND SETTLE ON A MAXIMUM OVER A GIVEN PERIOD OF TIME
I was going to be in PA for about three weeks (really two when you subtract out going on holiday and attending a telescope training), so I figured that giving 6 talks, or 2-3 per week, would both be enough to keep me busy enough and communicating enough to count as work as well as not so much that I felt totally drained at the end. For me, this was a good number. Sure, I was quite tired at the end of my trip, but I was also energized and excited by the people I interacted with along the way.
THINK ABOUT YOUR AUDIENCE AND REACH OUT TO PLACES WHERE YOU CAN ADDRESS THAT AUDIENCE
Reflecting on my own time as an undergraduate when I hadn’t heard much about different research areas of chemistry, I wanted my audience to be mostly chemistry undergraduates so that I could show them an application of their field beyond the typical chemistry curriculum. I thus reached out to chemistry departments at small liberal-arts colleges and introduced myself before expressing interest in talking about astrochemistry broadly as a field as well as some of the research I am doing. I also reached out to the local public library about giving a talk about the history and significance of radio astronomy, which ended up not working out because I had to go to a telescope training in WV; instead I proposed to talk about the same topic for the York County Astronomical Society.
USE YOUR NETWORK
Family members talked about my work to colleagues at their own institutions, and I got invited to give some talks as a result, including one at a physics colloquium. I didn’t think to ask relatives in academia to put in some plugs for me (and am grateful that they did anyway), but I will certainly ask family and friends at other institutions to do this in the future and will also do the same for them. A great way to put yourself out there is to get people around you excited about your work and eager to promote it genuinely.
CONSIDER GIVING OUT SOME SWAG
I love going to an astronomy talk and getting stickers of nebula and the like. I figured everyone does. Moreover, I like to think that giving out a small token will generate excitement to get buy-in from the audience immediately, especially when your audience is hungry and tired after being in class all day.
Rather than hand out business cards that would immediately get lost, I decided to design and order some stickers featuring sketches of mine along with my contact info. (I used Print Runner, and I highly recommend them!) I mostly got the stickers to give out when I do outreach with little kids. But hey, adults like stickers too, and it was only a couple dollars more to get 1000 stickers of each design versus 500. Now I can also give stickers out as an added “thank you” to people who buy from my SciArt store!
STAY TUNED FOR THE LOGISTICS
Different schools have different ways of handling speaker visits, so it is important to keep on top of things, especially if you are in contact with multiple people at once. Before you arrive on campus, make sure you know about parking (where to park and whether you need a permit), the building and room where you are speaking and where you should meet your host, what visual hookups are available in the room where you are presenting, and whether you are invited to hang around for meals or chats with students and faculty. Some hosts were up front with all of this information, but there were also a few where I had to seek it out.
PUT TOGETHER YOUR PRESENTATION, PRACTICE, AND HAVE FUN
Enthusiasm is contagious, so put together a presentation that you are excited about. Think about learning outcomes—what you want your audience to walk away with after your talk—and emphasize these points throughout. For instance, in my talks about astrochemistry, I wanted my audience to understand what astrochemists study, what “complex” means in my area of research, and why studying methanol in the interstellar medium is important. Thus while I included the actual research I am doing, I spent of my time introducing the field of astrochemistry.
It is important to practice your talk at least once. Make sure you don’t go over on time, and leave plenty of room for questions at the end. I also laid down some ground rules, encouraging the audience to raise their hands during the talk if they didn’t understand something that might prevent them from understanding content later-on but to otherwise save questions for the end.
The result of all of this? A whirlwind tour of speaking to faculty and students about lesser known topics in chemistry with lots of fun, conversations about science and grad school, and tired feet along the way—and I even got an invitation to Skype in to a classroom to give a guest lecture next semester! For both my professional and personal growth, it was indeed a worthwhile endeavor.