For news journalists, failure to communicate effectively is a failure of the news. So, the same is true about the journalists of the natural world: scientists. However, scientific communication is rarely taught during Ph.D. training. Students may learn to communicate in a niche scientific field, but if they are unable to communicate effectively to broader audiences their work will suffer. Alas, like many aspects of Ph.D. training, learning effective science communication is largely left up to the students themselves.
Fear not! There are many opportunities for formal training in science communication that provide concrete experience with which to build skills. For example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) funds an internship called the Mass Media Fellowship. This fellowship places students in internships at major news organizations such as National Public Radio (NPR) or the Chicago Tribune in order to give students exposure to work as a real science news journalist. In addition, here at Vanderbilt, the Vanderbilt Reporter has opportunities for students to detail Vanderbilt science for the community. Writing for the Reporter provides an opportunity to practice science communication while staying up to date on the fascinating research going on around Vanderbilt.
Whether or not formal training in science communication is pursued, all students, especially M.D./Ph.D. students, should recognize the value of effective science communication and make it a priority in their training. Opportunities for informal training in science communication include becoming an active contributor on twitter (e.g. follow the hashtag #scicomm), starting a blog or podcast, or simply describing scientific work to a family member or friend. And if these recommendations seem like old news, there are surprising opportunities for communication emerging every day. Just last week AAAS recommended that scientists create content tailored specifically for social media platforms, such as Snapchat or Instagram, to most effectively communicate with the public. Nancy Shute, co-editor of NPR’s health Shots, stated that “visuals” such as “art, videos, and GIFs” drives their coverage.
While at first it may seem as if no one cares about your thoughts, be persistent. The foremost goal of engaging in science communication is to practice, and the more you practice, the greater audience you will find. Successful media programs such as Cosmos, Radiolab, and Planet Earth have demonstrated resounding public interest in science and medicine. It is simply up to the communicator to communicate effectively
Finally, not many physician scientists have the time or motivation to begin a conversation with the public about their work. Hence, M.D./Ph.D. students have a unique opportunity to begin this conversation. Finding your voice will take some practice, but it will almost certainly improve your ability to communicate with the broader scientific and medical world. And, just maybe, your dialogue will instill hope in a struggling patient or inspire the next generation of physician-scientists.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and official policies of Vanderbilt University.