Megan Duffy: A Call to Action and An Early Exercise in Science Communication: Combatting Science Myth in the Media

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next stepsOver the course of six monthsYeonwoo LebovitzAnthony FranchniMegan Duffyand Celia Fernandez will give monthly updates on their progressCheck back every Wednesday  for new posts.

Current position: 4th year Ph.D. Student in Neuroscience, Department of Translational Science and Molecular Medicine
Program start date:  August 2013
Institution: Michigan State University

As you may have noticed from recent posts, I have taken a slightly different approach to my professional development.  I think informational interviews with professionals in your career field of interest are invaluable (stay tuned for next month’s blog!).  However, I think to get the most out of those interviews, you must also do your part in implementing their suggestions as to how you can prepare yourself now to a) stand out once you apply for those jobs and b) be successful from the get go.

While non-profit grant management/administration is at the top of my list, another field that came up in my IDP career fit was science writing.  These two fields are also not mutually exclusive: as you may remember from my interview with Dr. Beth Vernaleo, Associate Director of Research Programs at the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, science communication is a crucial part of her job.  As experts in the field, we have a responsibility to disseminate accurate and objective summaries of scientific progress and pitfalls to the general public.  Not only does this keep various patient groups informed, but it can also aid in garnering public support for science which, in the current political climate, is of utmost importance.  So what does this have to do with the title of this blog?

You’ve all seen it in mainstream media outlets, social media, and on the news: sensationalized titles like “Treatment reverses Alzheimer’s cognitive deficits in mice,” “Drinking red wine as beneficial as 30 minutes at the gym,” etc.… (If you want to have a good laugh/cry, check out John Oliver’s bit on this topic) As scientists who [daily] have to justify our every move from what animal or cell model we use to appropriate controls and antibodies, titles like these are a red flag.  But to the general audience, these kinds of titles are an instant hook.  Upon examination of the body of the article, little constructive criticism is usually discussed other than the general “more research needs to be conducted” statement at the end of an article.  Even more-so, stories will usually get tweaked as they make it from news outlet to news outlet to social media, so much so that the information isn’t accurate anymore.  Not only does this give people false hope, but the longer it’s perpetuated, the more people get frustrated when bench to bedside progress hasn’t been made.

PSA: In no way am I saying that journalists are intentionally disseminating inaccurate information, they just don’t speak the same science language that we are accustomed to—that leaves it to us to objectively analyze the data and provide them with an unbiased, realistic summary of the findings.

In Melanie Sinche’s book, “Next Gen Ph.D.” one of the activities performed most by Ph.Ds is writing.  Regardless of your long-term career plans, writing will most likely be involved.  And unless you’re a hermit, I’d hazard to guess you will be able to permanently avoid questions about your research from your non-scientist friends and family members.

So, what can you do to sharpen your science communication skills and make a difference?

  1. Start a blog or a podcast: When my time for this blog series is complete after next month, I plan on starting a monthly blog that will take a popular science article from the mainstream media and in a “journal club” fashion, dissect the original article’s methods, results, and interpretations. This method sharpens both your analytical skills and lay science communication if you provide an objective general summary after your analysis is complete.  I know, I know, as trainees we’re all incredibly busy, but set a realistic goal and make it happen (once a month seems reasonable, and now that I’ve told people I’m going to do it, I have to.  Thanks for keeping me accountable!).  Share it with your family and friends. Finally, on a broad scope, you never know who is reading.  The politicians that have a say in science policy and federal funding are normal people too-they need to be fed the correct information.  The more of us writing these accurate types of lay science pieces, the better!
  2. Practice with your immediate family/nonscience friends: I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating. I’m sure a lot of people have had a family member or friend approach them with “I saw this amazing science article in NPR, CNN, etc…”  I know, sometimes it can be annoying and easy to shrug off, but by not explaining the merits and pitfalls of scientific studies that these stories are based on, we’re not only letting the public down, we’re letting our field as a whole down.  Recognizing the importance of distributing accurate scientific findings far outweighs the annoyance some people experience when approached with statements like mentioned above.  Take 5-10 minutes to explain.  You’ll thank yourself later.
  3. Take advantage of science communication workshops and fellowship opportunities

The importance of science communication is being increasingly recognized.  Keep your eye out for workshops and fellowship opportunities that will immerse you in scientific journalism.  I’ve listed two great opportunities below for you to keep on your radar:

  • AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows Program: a ten-week long summer program for graduate students and postdocs to work alongside journalists at various media outlets like NPR, NatGeo, Slate, etc…to enhance their scientific communication skills.
  • ComSciCon 2017: The 2017 Communicating Science National Workshop is being held in Cambridge, MA June 8-10. An immersive professional development experience to work along other science communications experts, journalists, and fellow scientists to collaborate to produce original projects and build skills to be effective communicators.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for my last blog in the series, an interview with Nicole Polinski, Ph.D., Research Programs Officer at the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.  Nicole is a recent graduate from my lab and we will be talking about her transition from the lab to the non-profit world.

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