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There is an Art to Communicating Scientific Research

Cross-disciplinary program helps researchers explain what they do (and why).

A seated woman talks to the camera and another woman who is facing her
The Research Communications Program offers interactive workshops, on-camera training and coaching for science researchers. Photo: Daniel Orren

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This article originally appeared in the spring 2024 issue of UC San Diego Magazine as “The Art of Communicating Science.”

Today’s researchers and thought leaders are challenged by more than exploring the machinery inside cells or dynamic forces across oceans. To share scientific breakthroughs, researchers must reach the hearts and minds of all kinds of audiences, especially outside the laboratory. They must be able to explain what they do — and why they do it.

UC San Diego’s Research Comm­unication Program (RCP) offers an array of workshops and coaching to equip researchers with the necessary skills to share their findings with audiences such as news media, policymakers, donors, program officers and even their friends and neighbors.

“RCP workshops cover practical, hands-on skills so our trainees come away with tools they can apply in multiple settings,” says Steve Briggs, a professor in the School of Biological Sciences and the program’s faculty advisor. “Researchers can implement these new tools while teaching their next class, meeting with funding agency leaders or presenting to neighborhood community centers.”

In 2023, the program enrolled more than 500 researchers from UC San Diego schools and disciplines in its workshops. And with a variety of in-person and virtual sessions, trainees included a mixed profile of faculty members, research scientists, postdoctoral scholars, graduate students and others.

“We partnered with RCP to help us better communicate our applied research on extreme precipitation and atmospheric rivers,” says Julie Kalansky, a climate scientist and deputy director for operations for the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “The trainings not only taught us how to speak in more authentic and engaging ways but also how to communicate in times when there are potential hazards (floods in our case) as well as ‘blue sky days.’”

Through a series of workshops, RCP offers an integrated approach to science communication. Each workshop emphasizes a different aspect of message articulation and delivery and provides time for interactive training and practice. A workshop on presentation effectiveness includes on-camera training, for example, while another teaches gestural and vocal techniques for managing the emphasis of key presentation points.

“There’s never been a more critical time for scientists to be able to communicate the importance of their research — directly, clearly and authentically — than today.”
Kim Rubinstein, professor emerita, Department of Theatre and Dance

Workshops are highly interactive and encourage feedback between participants. A medical specialist may provide helpful critique on an oceanographer’s description of their work, while an astrophysicist could offer a commentary on the description of a geneticist’s research. 

At the heart of the program is an emphasis on authenticity — being true to oneself rather than trying to fit into a preconceived notion of what a science communicator should be or should say. For example, when a science presentation feels rote, Kim Rubinstein, professor emerita from the Department of Theatre and Dance and a renowned theatre director, helps researchers find the spark by tapping into their core motivation for the work.

“We train scientists to speak precisely and passionately about their research and why it matters to them so that audiences can connect to both their research and the human being behind the research,” says Rubinstein. “There’s never been a more critical time for scientists to be able to communicate the importance of their research — directly, clearly and authentically — than today.” 

The program offers a nontraditional approach to media training and supports researchers as their scientific careers progress and communication goals evolve. This is achieved through the diverse expertise of four core team members who lead the workshops, including myself, Mario Aguilera ’89, director of communications for the School of Biological Sciences; Debbie Nail Meyer, MS ’94, a science outreach specialist with experience in video production; Rubinstein; and Sherry Seethaler, director of education initiatives.

“The ability to get feedback from science communication experts and media experts to theatre and performance experts is an invaluable experience,” says Uri Manor, a workshop participant and assistant professor in the School of Biological Sciences. “It was also helpful to do this with other scientists so we could learn from their feedback as well.”

Seethaler, author of a new book, Beyond the Sage on the Stage: Communicating Science and Contemporary Issues Effectively, recognizes the impact of the program.  

“As we work with researchers, they have many ‘aha’ moments that help them optimize their communication approaches,” says Seethaler. “Those breakthroughs are a real joy to see, just like the aha moments that advance the scientific discovery process.”

RCP is funded by a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and led by the schools of Biological Sciences and Physical Sciences with support from University Communications. 

This article originally appeared in the spring 2024 issue of UC San Diego Magazine as “The Art of Communicating Science.”

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