Grad Researchers Get Training in Science Communication

Skill-developing seminar led by Mason faculty

by Janet Krenn

Grad Researchers Get Training in Science Communication
Virginia Sea Grant Fellow Mark Stratton talks about his research using a presentation he developed for recreational anglers.

Seven former and current Virginia Sea Grant Fellows spent the day at the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation on March 10 to work together to improve their science communication skills. Throughout the fall, the Fellows learned best practices for communication and worked to apply what they learned to develop a communication product that they could use to address an audience of their choosing.

The projects ranged from a short talk on fisheries research to a one-page summary for homeowners about shoreline erosion, from a game about seagrass to a photo display about invasive species.

“I found the range and depth of these projects to be very impressive,” said Kathy Rowan, Director of George Mason’s Science Communication Graduate Program who guided the fellows through the process. Rowan’s specialty is science and risk communication–not marine science. If the goal for the fellows was to communicate clearly with non-specialists, she believes they met that goal: “I represent the lay audience, and I learned a lot from the students.”

Bonnie Myers, Virginia Tech alum and current Sea Grant Knauss Fellow, developed a talk about her research for elementary students and parents. Myers studied how changes in water temperature affect the survival of stream fish, such as trout. She said she was looking forward to attending the seminar to get feedback from other fellows.

“I got great ideas for interactive activities I could do with students,” she said. She was also inspired by the other fellows who developed one-pagers and artistic displays. “I realized I need to take better pictures.”

“It was an opportunity to get out of the research-intensive bubble, and practice engaging in communication with every day people in mind,” said Andre Buchheister, former Research Fellow at Virginia Institute of Marine Science and current post-doc at University of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay Laboratory. For his communication project, Buccheister developed two elevator pitches, short responses to the question “what do you do?”

Buchheister researches how multiple fish species interact with each other and their habitat. He compared his work to his wife’s, a physical therapist. Just like she knows that back pain might originate in another area of the body, Buchheister said some things we observe in fisheries are caused by another part of the ecosystem.

It’s not always easy to describe his job, but he said, “The work we do is important, and it’s important to get it out there.”

The science communication course and seminar was led by Rowan, Karen Akerlof, and Elizabeth Grisham of George Mason University, and are part of a pilot program to help Virginia’s up-and-coming scientists develop confidence and skill in communicating with different audiences.