A scicomm ecosystem takes shape

From writing courses and coaching to opportunities to publish their work, students in CBS and beyond are benefitting from offerings designed to help them build their skills as communicators.
November 09, 2021

Becoming an effective science communicator takes training and practice. For many science students, opportunities are limited. With that in mind, the University of Minnesota Science Communication Lab (SCL) -- an interdisciplinary internship program and incubator for science communication projects -- and the College of Biological Sciences (CBS) communications team formed a collaboration several years ago to develop communications courses and workshops designed to help participants move past jargon to develop engaging, accessible narratives. 


The team developed a portfolio of writing workshops, shorter “boot camps,” and a semester-long course with plans to expand on that base going forward. Workshops, bootcamps and courses are product driven, encouraging students to build skills through practice, feedback and repetition. Participants critique each other’s work and are encouraged to write and “revise, revise, revise.” 

Students find opportunities to write and publish through internships, SCL’s affiliate writers program and the CBS Bioline blog. All of these opportunities create a science communication “ecosystem” through which students can move based on where they are at and where they want to go. 

“Communicating our science is part of our mission and a critical skill for our students as they enter the workforce,” says CBS Dean Valery Forbes. “As science becomes more complex, scientists in different fields can find it challenging to communicate across disciplines or even sub-disciplines, let alone with non-scientists. Whether it’s presenting their research to fellow scientists or translating for a non-scientific audience, we want to ensure that our students are equipped to share their work with the public, policymakers and colleagues alike.”

From science to story
One way to capture people’s interest and attention is to tell a good story. But story arcs, vivid metaphors and relatable anecdotes aren’t staples of most science courses.

“Storytelling is the basis of how we relate to each other, and that’s the best way for people to hold onto important scientific information,” said Caitlin Looby, who teaches Biol 5701 Science Communication: A Primer for Scientists. 

Looby, who came to the U of M in 2019 as a Grand Challenges Postdoc with an extensive science-writing résumé that includes articles in the New York Times and the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, says a science communication class jump started things for her.  In the class, students learn about storytelling, audience and Inclusive SciComm as well as meeting scientists now working in science communication and journalism during a career panel. Some tangible goals include writing a script for a three-minute thesis talk, a clip for CBS-BioLine and a longer form news article or op-ed.

“I know how overwhelming it can be to be a graduate student and that is why I make the class product-focused,” Looby said. “I want students to walk away with clips they can publish, material for talks or fellowship applications, and ways they add to their CV or resumes.”

Putting scicomm to work
Kira Sampson, a CBS neuroscience major who took the course in spring 2021, was recruited to join the SCL as a science-writing fellow and began writing for the Build-a-Cell Consortium, an international collaboration of researchers working to develop cells from synthetic components. Working with Kate Adamala, an associate professor in Genetics, Cell Biology and Development, Sampson is currently editing a white paper she wrote about what it would take to get the FDA to approve the use of synthetic cells. She plans to send it to a variety of scientific journals.

Reed Grumann was introduced to the program when two SCL  members came into the lab he was working in to take photos for a website update. After learning about their work, he joined in fall 2019. Grumann, a microbiology and political science major, now works as a communications and engagement specialist at climate-focused nonprofit Science Based Targets. He says SCL taught him how to be a science advocate and a team player.

“I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my communication skills as a scientist began to directly impact my skills as an advocate for science,” he says.

Siddhant Pusdekar, a Ph.D. candidate in the CBS Biology Teaching and Learning Department, didn’t realize he would enjoy science writing as much as he does until he took the SciComm boot camp and Looby’s course. He is now considering science communication as a career path. 

Caroline Frischmon was a bioproducts engineering major in the College of Science and Engineering when she joined SCL in January 2020. She had just completed an internship at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO, and was inspired by the communications efforts there.

“When I decided I was interested in science communication, I thought I would have to go about it on my own,” she said. “I had no idea that this amazing program was already established.” Through SCL, Frischmon landed a writing internship with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and changed her path in grad school at the University of Colorado-Boulder. 

Frischmon is applying her background in chemical engineering and her communications experience in a project that involves placing sensors in communities with poor air quality and communicating the results “so residents have data to back up their environmental justice initiatives.”

Expanding the ecosystem
Working with Seth Thompson, CBS director of outreach, the team plans to add a new course focused on community engagement next spring alongside BIOL 5701, its intro to science communication. 

“Communication and engagement are fundamental for doing impactful science,” Thompson says. “With BIOL 5702, we want to help students think about how they can connect the science they are doing to the broader societal context we live within. If we do our science in a vacuum, the impact never leaves the lab, but by providing opportunities, outlets, and support for scientists and students to connect their work with communities in authentic ways, we can really do broadly impactful science.”

For more information about Scicomm training, contact Caitlin Looby (looby014@umn.edu)