Fallik is practiced at steering such conversations because her own reporting demands it.
“As a medical and science reporter with a background in data
analysis, I spend a lot of time talking to researchers about their work
for stories in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post,”
she said. "I use the phrase ‘Let me make sure I understand what you're
saying' frequently. I know I'm not an expert in their field and I don't
want to get anything wrong."
It is not self-evident to scientists and other researchers that
mastering communication skills and learning about social media are
“The biggest challenge for the graduate students is that they have
been in their field for so long, completely immersed in their technical
language, they don’t realize that the vast majority of the public does
not know what they consider to be common knowledge,” Fallik said.
“But the more they can become comfortable communicating to the
general public — on the platform where they get information, whether
it’s Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or whatever — the better. If they’re
smart, they’re interested.”
Add to this the tendency of some humans to pretend they understand —
to bluff or guess at what the meaning might be — and the information gap
gets worse, not better.”
As a journalist, Fallik knows that is non-negotiable.
“I remember starting to explain something to her once,” Zide said. “I
said, ‘If you have a thermal gradient….’ And she stopped me right
there. We use those terms as a shorthand, but most of the public might
not know what ‘gradient’ means. And if the public doesn’t understand you
or thinks you are trying to talk down to people, well, if we aren’t
really careful we’re going to be misunderstood.”
Dixson said she was impressed by the students who participated in the
program. At the graduate level, she said, they are constantly learning
new terms, new techniques, new ideas and developing their use of
scientific language. This was another angle on communication.
“In an age where scientific findings are always questioned by the
general public and the majority of funding comes from tax dollars,
students must learn how to speak to an untrained audience on the
importance of their research, the findings that resulted from said
research and — most important — the impact the findings have on the
lives of the general public,” she said.
Practice pays off
The sessions in the spring of 2019 included Writing for Advocacy,
Data Visualization, Social Media Messaging, Pitching and Podcasts.
Students developed their own presentations and practiced them.
On the night of the final presentations, they gathered in Memorial
Hall and, one by one, explained their research — such things as coastal
engineering, the color of light, vehicle-to-grid energy technology, how
gender makes a difference in recovery from substance abuse,
osteoarthritis, how the brain makes sense of things, inequality in STEM
fields, artificial intelligence, how blockchain technology could improve
transparency in disaster management, and much more.
The judges brought plenty of expertise to the panel, including Doren,
Barbara Adde, a UD alum who now is strategic communications director
for NASA; and Tina Hesman Saey, senior writer at Science News, who has a
doctorate in molecular genetics.
“It was really interesting, really fun and I found it great that so
many people were interested that some had to be turned away,” Saey said.
“Most of them did comparably well to what I’ve seen other early-career
scientists doing. But some of them were real standouts, who clearly had a
gift for communication. Even some whose presentations weren’t as clear,
I felt like having this experience probably had given them more
confidence to talk about their work and that’s not training people
generally get. They’re told you have to give a talk, but nobody ever
told them how do you do that.”
Assisting with such efforts might be a bit “self-serving,” Saey said
with a laugh. “If I call any of them for an interview, they’ll
presumably be able to explain in terms my readers will understand.”
Ashley Kennedy, who was about to earn her doctorate in entomology and
wildlife ecology, won the top prize of $1,000 for demonstrating her use
of crowd-sourcing while studying the kinds of insects important to
She showed how she launched a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter
account (@whatdobirdseat) that caught on with like-minded souls and
produced thousands of photographs documenting bird menus throughout
North America. She made a brief video and it all helped her make the case that native plantings play a powerful role in providing food for birds.
“Garden as if life depended on it,” she said. “Because actually, it does.”
Kennedy now works at the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen (Md.) Proving Ground, studying tick-borne disease.
McCabe, the engineering doctoral student, put what she learned to immediate use.
“I have definitely benefited from things we learned in the program,” McCabe said. “I have a small science blog — Small World Big Impacts
— that I update when graduate research allows me some extra time. After
the program I set up an Instagram account for it as a different
platform to get the word out using what I learned, particularly from the
session we had with Gene Park where he talked about reaching people on
different web platforms. It's not huge, but I recently hit 50 followers
with a small, steady growing trend. If I get even one non-scientist to
learn something new and exciting with each post, then I consider that a
Article by Beth Miller; photos by Lane McLaughlin; illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase
Published Dec. 5, 2019