AAAS Annual Conference: Friday

Secrets of a Science Communicator: Engaging General Audiences

First on my agenda today was a Career Development Workshop held by Andy Torr, Communications & Research Resource Officer at the University of British Columbia. Throughout the session Torr repeatedly stressed that successful science communication is not about knowing your audience or crafting a simple key message, but instead about telling a story, sharing an experience, and engaging your audience in order to obtain leverage and create a ripple effect. He split his talk into three acts. Act 1 dealt with You. Torr described a triangle in which ethos (credibility) was at the top corner and logos (logic) and pathos (human-ness) are at the bottom corners. He explained that if you lean too far towards one bottom corner, logos or pathos, you lose ethos and thus lose your credibility and your audience. He also gave the example of Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle (a series of concentric circles with why in the inner most circle, then how in the middle circle, and what in the outer circle). Torr explained that while most people communicate from the outside in, the best leaders communicate from the inside out. Act 2 dealt with Them. He explained that people normally retrieve what we believe and that everyone has different experiences and therefore different beliefs, thus people in general are different. Torr instructed to take your message, put it through a prism, and then find answers for each group, be it scientists, government, industry, media, or entrepreneurs. Finally, Act 3 was about being persuasive. You need to tell a story instead of just explaining facts. Torr was adamant that bullets kill; 80% of people are visual learners and thus instead of bullet points we need presentations with story, context, and life. He gave the example of Hans Rosling’s BBC4 talk. Finally he suggested some additional reading: Nancy Baron’s Escape from the Ivory Tower and Resonate (perhaps one of these could be the next book we read for FOSEP’s book club).


Not Science as Usual: Become a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow

Although the title of the next event I attended suggests a focus on the AAAS fellowship, this Career Development Workshop addressed opportunities both in the US and internationally to obtain science and technology policy training. We heard from a recent AAAS Congressional Fellow and representatives from the Canadian Science Policy Center and the US Union of Concerned Scientists.  While I was hoping to get more information on the AAAS fellowship, I was encouraged by the wide range of science policy opportunities available both inside and outside of the US.


John P. McGovern Award Lecture in the Behavioral Sciences: Joseph E. LeDoux, The Emotional Brain

After two career development workshops it was time for a lecture pertaining to scientific research. Dr. LeDoux is the Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science and University Professor at New York University. He started his talk by explaining that much of what he would present is contained in a Neuron review article due out next month. His talk focused on survival circuits instead of actual emotion because while survival circuits are highly conserved and similarly organized, emotion is a hard to define concept and the circuits involved vary across species. Dr. LeDoux postulated that emotion is what happens when a survival circuit is activated, that feelings result when consciousness witnesses one of these states, and that this is a function of the specific brain an organism has. Dr. LeDoux concluded his presentation by showing fear conditioning data obtained by his laboratory at NYU. He took us through the experiments involved in determining that the central and lateral amygdala are required for fear conditioning, the signal transduction pathways involved, and finally recent studies using optogenetics to further investigate this phenomenon.


Delivering on the Promise of the Human Genome Project

After a short lunch break I next attended the first part of a seminar on unlocking biology’s potential. Although I had to leave early to attend another session I was able to catch Dr. Daniel von Hoff’s lecture titled: The Human Genome Project 11 Years Later: New Medical Treatments for Humanity. Dr. Hoff is an oncologist from the Translational Genomics Research Institute. He spoke about the 7th vital sign of oncology, the context of vulnerability of a tumor cell. He gave examples of phase one clinical trials conducted on patients who had exhausted all other treatment options and had 8-12 weeks to live. Each patient had his or her whole genome sequenced and from that data novel drug targets for each patient were found. Although not successful for most patients, Dr. Hoff showed remarkable examples of rapid remission following treatment with drugs used to target gene mutations found by the genome wide screens. He did stress that although promising, much work is still left; currently only simple cancers (cancers arising from only one mutation) are susceptible to this type of treatment approach, subsequent mutations in the tumor cells as a result of the novel drug treatment can develop rendering the tumor again resistant, and the cost of sequencing is still very high and takes too long (6-8 weeks). While his talk focused solely on cancer, I was also curious how the Human Genome Project is being used to research and treat other medical disorders, unfortunately there was no time allotted for questions at the end of Dr. Hoff’s talk.


Bad Presenter Bingo: The Science Communication Game You Don’t Want To Win

The last event I attended before the Plenary Lecture was a very interesting Career Development Workshop by Monica M. Metzler from the Illinois Science Council (ISC). Metzler founded the ISC as a nonprofit with the goal of science outreach and promotion focused on adult audiences. She started with going through Who, Where, Why, How, and What of science presentations. WHO: consider anyone that doesn’t have a Ph.D. in your subject to be a lay audience and remember that not all audiences are the same. WHERE: Science on Tap, Nerd Nights, science cafes, volunteer opportunities. WHY: giving a talk will make you a better scientist, grant writer, fundraiser, and more attractive to potential employers. HOW: be a normal person, just talk, don’t do things that bother you when you watch others present, and start simple. Its ok to “dumb it down” i.e. make your talk accessible and give context. WHAT: your presentation doesn’t have to be about your research, make it interesting and something people will appreciate because the main goal of public outreach is to get people excited and curious about science. Next Metzler gave us handouts of a bingo card where each square contained a bad habit often seen in science presentations, both presentations aimed at other scientists and at the public. Finally, she ended the session by fielding questions. Although I still have much to improve on in my own presentation skills, I was pleased to see that many of the bad habits listed on the bingo card are ones that have previously been address by my instructors at UW.




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