Translating research to everyone

As scientists struggle to break down their work, classes aim to help their communication skills.

by Parker Lemke

More so than ever, science isn’t happening in a vacuum.

As it becomes increasingly vital to communicate scientific work outside of laboratories, programs have sprung up around the University of Minnesota to train student researchers how to interact with the media, government and industry officials, and the general public.

“Science is fun. And if you only communicate with scientists, it’s still fun — but it’s not useful,” said Clarence Lehman, associate dean for research and graduate education in the College of Biological Sciences. “We have to make it fit with the other branches of the human endeavor.”

The growing importance of applying interdisciplinary research in scientific fields has spurred the need for researchers to develop their communication skills, Lehman said.

They are no longer solitary workers, he said, pointing to the rising average number of authors on scientific papers over time.

“It was years ago that a scientist could be successful if they never really made eye contact with another person,” Lehman said. “It isn’t that way anymore.”

To help CBS students apply their work to the world around them, he said, the school has added writing-intensive classes and career training.

And in some cases, elements of a liberal education — like ethics — have been added to formally “pure sciences” courses, Lehman said.

New this year is a series of career development workshops offered by the consulting firm Nelsen Biomedical.

The workshops introduce and expose doctoral students to industry, nonprofit and government job opportunities, said the firm’s founder, Barbara Nelsen, who studied molecular biology.

Nelsen said young scientists often face difficulties finding traditional academic positions, and she said being able to translate and transfer their knowledge beyond scholarly settings can be advantageous during their career search.

“There’s a big gap between what people are trained to do and want to do, and the reality of the academic situation,” she said.

The workshops, known as Emerge Bioscience, offer a batch of courses, including biweekly, three-hour classes where students develop plans to market their skills and interact with guest speakers.

By the end of the course, students should be able to highlight their skills to different audiences, said Amy Moore, founder of Moore BioBusiness and Nelsen’s partner in developing Emerge Biology.

“It’s not just a marketing tool to get a job. But you know, more and more organizations and governments are relying on accurate scientific data,” Moore said. “We need scientists everywhere.”

Stepping out of an academic comfort zone is not new to Moore, a University of California  neuroscience doctoral graduate who came to Minnesota after leaving an academic position.

“I had to find or look for other opportunities, in ways to apply my skill set as a scientist,” Moore said. “After knocking on some doors and realizing there was a certain vocabulary or understanding of operations that I didn’t know, I ended up going to business school.”

At the University’s Carlson School of Management, Moore discovered her scientific skill set was valued by many non-academic organizations.

Now she wants to spread that perspective to current doctoral students.

“I wish I had known about this when I was in my Ph.D. training,” Moore said. “It would have made the transition, I think, a little less stressful — a little easier.”

Digesting science

Another program seeking to broaden the communication and outreach skills of young scientists exists at the University’s Institute on the Environment.

In its fourth year, the Boreas Leadership Program offers doctoral and professional students a series of workshops on media interactions, community and interdisciplinary skills, and professional networking, said program director Kate Knuth.

As a former state Representative and current University conservation biology doctoral student, Knuth said experts increasingly want to inform the public about their research’s relevance without burdensome jargon that often develops in specialized fields.

“Whether it’s a public presentation or interacting with a reporter or through social media, I think there’s an increasing interest among scientists in doing that kind of work,” Knuth said.

Lehman said solid communication with non-experts can make the often challenging concepts in scientific journal papers more accessible.

“Pretty much any idea can be explained simply as long as you explain it abstractly,” he said. “Some of the things that we try to do will get students trained for that.”