SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
9 October 2014
Volume 15 Issue 10

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Exercising Communication

Emily Monosson, SETAC North America North Atlantic Chapter Vice President

I didn’t mean to break Skylar’s nose, but that medicine ball just slipped from my hands. And I’m sure she never expected physical injury, this was after all, just a scientific workshop. But then, it was so much more. This was an Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science Workshop, and those balls we were tossing, basketballs, ping pong balls and medicine balls, were drawn from the air.  Air that, earlier in the day as part of an improvisational exercise, we had cradled in our hands and carried across the room adding our bit to the mound collected by 14 other scientists: mid-career academics, consultants and freelancers, post-docs and graduate students. We were an intrepid group exploring the world of Science Communication and this was our introduction to improv.

Exercising communication

Our very first task before all the raucous ball throwing was to work as a group modifying a typical scientific abstract so that it could be understood by anyone. It was a mental workout and humbling. Who is our audience? A family member? Funders? The Dean of our Graduate Program? Or a colleague from another field of science? Why should they care? Would everyone know what we mean by “water column” or even “sediment”? What is the bottom line? What’s the story? What did we want to communicate? So steeped are we in what we know, it was exceedingly difficult to reach back to the days when our vocabulary didn’t include words like pelagic or trophic; when species referred to something living, rather than to a metal; and when toxin, rather than the more pedantic toxicant was acceptable.

Anticipating the needs of our audience is one thing, but responding to them in real time is another. You know those times, when the student in the front row nods off; a colleague begins texting; that guy in the back, who must be a reporter, looks totally befuddled; or a heavy medicine ball is hurtling towards your face. Quick. Respond. As I learned to interact with Skylar rather than just chuck the ball at her, our wordless communication began flowing.  Half a day of improvisational exercises introduced the concept of reading an audience, staying focused and responding; it takes at least two to communicate.

The next exercise was simple enough, share a turning point in your scientific career. Mine was kids – a story I’d told too many times. How I’d decided to work part-time once my son was born. The feedback was astonishing. One found it offensive. Another felt the term part-time was demeaning. I was shocked. We so often tell our stories to others, at a meeting or a party. But too seldom do we receive honest feedback. What did they hear? How did that make them feel?

Exercising communication

It was just enough to awaken my inner communicator – that group of neurons buried under a pile of scientific literature, data and power point slides; and it was just enough to leave me wanting more and wondering why every graduate school doesn’t offer Science Communication courses. Communication is not just a necessity these days it is like a muscle that must be exercised to stay in top condition. The Alda Center workshop was our Gold’s Gym for communication; an opportunity for a mental, verbal and physical workout -- complete with medicine balls.

The Alan Alda Center for Science Communication workshop included two sessions, “Distilling Your Message” led by Christine O’Connell and Nancy Serrell and “Improvisation for Scientists” led by Lydia Franco-Hodges.  This event was co-sponsored by the North Atlantic Regional Chapter of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry and the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program.  We hope to offer another workshop soon!  Click here to contact the Alan Alda Center for Science Communication if your chapter is interested in hosting a Science Communication workshop.

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