By Chelsie Boodoo (@SciWithChelsie)
Edited by Simon Bakke
Dr. Joe Palca was the perfect person to introduce me to science communication. Joe did not realize what science communication was until long into his career. In 1982, Joe was completing his dissertation at the University of California Santa Cruz on sleep psychology when he saw an advertisement for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship. This fellowship was focused on training scientists to strengthen their connection with journalists. Not enthralled with his research, he knew he did not want to stay in academia and wanted to try something new. Joe decided to give the fellowship a try; it was an opportunity to explore something new that valued his degree without constraining him to a laboratory.
“The part of grad school I really liked was teaching and working with students,” Joe said. “[The fellowship] was everything grad school was not — it was different every day.”
He was suggested by an AAAS Mass Media Fellow to take a writing test to be a vacation relief writer for the ABC station on San Francisco KGO. He took the test on Thursday, and on Friday he received a call asking him to start Monday. He assured me that anyone could be a science communicator, that all they had to was give it a try.
“Just take a swing. I don’t know if I wrote prize-winning stuff that first week, but I did OK, and that led to another week,” Joe said. I believe this is true; some people are afraid to take the first step towards a career in science communication, but the outcomes are rewarding.
Within a few years, he achieved his goal of becoming a television science communicator. Unfortunately, he developed a distaste for local news.
"Local news is very much dominated by sports and weather and gore. I didn’t really care for that,” Joe said.
Again, he switched careers. He was offered a job with Nature through his connections from when he was a Mass Media Fellow, and switched again to working at Science for a few years. He made the final career change to National Public Radio (NPR), where he has worked for the past 26 years. I was surprised he left reputable companies like Nature and Science, but pleased when he said, “I think it’s a good thing I left. I found myself happier with a news organization that reached the public, not just the science, so that was very satisfying.”
After reading, watching and listening to a few of his pieces on NPR (occasionally accompanied by the puppet in the photo), I noticed a majority of them were based on Astronomy, NASA and other topics. I was intrigued because he earned his Ph.D. in Sleep Psychology. So I asked: what's it like writing in a field without any previous expertise and how do you overcome the obstacle of both learning and communicating it?
He explained he believes writing in a field that is not in your subject of expertise is actually easier, because you’re less constrained to know all the details. Though some think only scientists can become effective communicators, Joe does not.
What Joe said resonated with me. I later pondered the countless times I lost sight of what I was saying because I was too caught up in the details. His next example made it even clearer for me: sometimes, you need to ask the obvious.
“If you're a sleep researcher and you ask what Stage Four sleep is, they’re going to ask, ‘what kind of sleep researcher are you?’ [It’s] awkward if you [already] know the answer, but you still have to ask bc it’s not your story — it’s their story.”
I never thought about it like that.
He tells starting science journalists that it is easier to write about things you do not know, since you are not as constrained by the things you needed to leave out to get your story across.
Many scientists, like myself, believe that science communication can be daunting. However, after speaking to Joe, I understand now that the hardest step is the first. Joe’s ambition to become a Mass Media fellow provided many opportunities for him. I did not realize until speaking to Joe that it is easier for some people to write about something outside of their expertise. Scientists need to be open to the idea of delving into fields that are not their own. By having confidence, passion, and ambition, they can become effective science communicators and help shape the future.
By Catherine Hudson
Edited by Simon Bakke
The Alda Center aims to give scientists the skills necessary to communicate their research and conclusions clearly, leading to improved understanding of their research by those who are not directly involved. The Alda Center uses The Alda Method®, a combination of improvisational activities aimed at creating an emotional response to clear the way for increased empathy and communication.
As someone who previously worked as both an undergraduate and graduate researcher and who is now interested in science communication and outreach, I immediately jumped at the opportunity to interview Lindenfeld. I enjoyed hearing her unique perspective as we discussed her career path, communication research, and her new job as the Interim Dean.
Q. What inspired you to pursue a career in communication research?
A. Largely because I had an interest in food cultural studies and environmental science, I took a deep interest in understanding how communication research could support better collaborative processes in solving environmental issues and how it could support inter- and transdisciplinary team collaboration. I found my way to working with a lot of STEM professionals, and that’s where my interest in science communication — which is really an interest in STEM communication — first started. I realized that we needed better communication to help link our research with societal action.
Starting with my interest in food cultural studies, I discovered that if you study food long enough, you find your research will lead you to the environment and the earth. And if you study the environment and the earth long enough, you find your way to people. The problems that exist with the planet are mostly ones that we’ve created and we have to engage people to address those problems. That’s how I progressed from food to the environment to science, people, and communication research.
Although the data is still being collected, we’ve received positive feedback from scientists about the benefits of the training that include greater confidence and an increased enthusiasm for scientific outreach. We’ve also done a study that explores the interest of scientists in bringing public engagement to their research. It asks scientists what they both want and need in order to better engage the public. I’m really proud and excited about this study and the new data should be coming out soon! I’m also interested to know how improved science communication can improve researcher/stakeholder collaborations.
Q. Has there been anything that has surprised you since you started work at the Alda Center?
A. One thing that has been really surprising to me is how much Alan Alda’s name not only opens doors, but also raises suspicion. Researchers question if there is credibility to the research that takes place at the Alda Center or if we are just riding on a celebrity’s name.
I’ve also been surprised by how new the world of science communication training research is. Science communication itself is not a new topic, but studying science communication is still a young field. More broadly, I would really like to see a collaborative effort continue to evolve that supports robust workforce development both inside and outside academia where we can collectively be learning from each other across different approaches to science communication training and research.
Q. What about communication research makes you love it?
A. I love being able to do work that actually matters! I love that we work in iterative cycles of research and implementation and that we’re open to learning, not just from our own mistakes, but also from the data. I love being able to say, “Here’s how we can do this better,” and then being able to do it!
I also enjoy collaborating and the interdisciplinary team dynamic that we have that exhibits a constant learning process where people can question each other in responsible and civil ways. I work in a place where people can offer insight, feedback, and criticism without feeling like they have to hold back because they might criticize someone. There’s really a focus on moving the work forward, and I love that we have that positive dynamic.
Q. Could you tell me more about your new position as the Interim Dean at Stony Brook’s School of Journalism?
A. At the School of Journalism where I am now interim dean, I think there is a huge opportunity to help shape what the future of the School of Journalism will look like. There’s a changing landscape in both media industries and higher education right now. Journalism as a field has undergone such intense changes due to online platforms, media ownership, and a decline in newspapers, among other factors. I think this has undercut some of the most important pillars of journalism, such as the freedom of the press, which really troubles me. In addition, state universities and some private schools are hurting from cuts in state budgets, which translates to tuition increases needed to keep up with mandatory raises.
So I’m trying to collaborate with leaders on campus and within the School of Journalism to figure out how we can create a renewed commitment to journalism that is sustainable for the school’s future. I’m the kind of person who looks forward instead of back, and I try to solve problems and create new opportunities. I really want us to be able to have an active role in charting our future, and I want a strong journalism program to be maintained and emerge out of that.
Q. Lastly, what is one piece of advice you could give scientists who wish to improve their communication both inside and outside of academe?
A. You know the old saying that God gave you two ears and one mouth so we listen twice as much as we speak? I definitely think it’s important to listen, not just until the other person is finished talking so that you can talk more, but to take that other person in and try to understand them while treating them with a sense of dignity and respect. When communicating, it is important to try and understand who the other person/group is, what they care about, what’s at stake for them, and how you can connect with them.
Catherine Hudson Hudson recently earned her master’s degree in geology and geophysics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.
Dr. Laura Lindenfeld received her master’s degree in German Literature and Language and Scandinavian studies in Germany. She earned her Ph.D. in cultural studies from the University of California, Davis. She worked at the University of Maine for 16 years, and became a faculty member and a communication researcher in the Department of Communication and Journalism and at the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. Lindenfeld directed the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center for two years. She is now the Executive Director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and the Interim Dean for the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University.
You have something to say about science communication and looking for a good forum? We got your back, we accept submissions. Email us your inquiry and we'll discuss the details.