For any practicing scientist, communicating the excitement we feel when we’re doing science and getting the word out about our latest findings and their broader importance is as relevant as writing proposals, designing experiments, and collecting and analyzing data. Where we might have once hewed to the dictum of “publish or perish”, now we must communicate or dissipate. Contemporary science communication ranges from instant and informal messaging via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, often with emojis and memes to more considered and formal communication of op-eds, posters and oral presentations to our colleagues at workshops and meetings, edited or peer-reviewed magazine and journal articles, and full-length monographs and books. Not every scientist will use all of these formal communication platforms, but all successful scientists use some of them.
It’s both exciting and daunting to have so many options we can use to communicate our science. And it is crucial for all scientists to learn and become adept in using several different modes of communication. How do we learn and perfect formal scientific communication skills?
In my undergraduate days, taking science courses meant learning and building “science skills” like using a balance, precisely measuring reagents, accurately counting fruit flies or blades of grass, and entering data. Along the way, my professors and lab instructors taught me these skills, which I honed and refined in lab class after lab class. Lab reports were par for the course for reporting results, but they aren’t the same as what goes into an abstract, poster, or oral talk presented at scientific conferences. The skills of writing an abstract, preparing a talk or poster, and then presenting it to my peers weren’t part of any undergraduate syllabus. And once I got to graduate school, it was expected that I had already learned these skills.
So when and where did I learn them? I picked them up through trial and error, watching how others did it (but in a classic “Catch-22”, the best place to learn through watching is at a conference, but as a student, you usually only get to attend a conference if you’re presenting your work), or asking others for help. All of these ways of learning not only are inefficient but also can be really daunting, especially if you don’t “fit in” to the prevailing culture (of science).
There’s got to be a better way…