Edward van Opstal: Reaching the Public

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the course of six months, Edward van Opstal, Ruchi Masand, Corina White, and Darcie Cook will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every Wednesday for new blog posts!

Current position: 4th year PhD candidate in Biological Sciences

Program start date: 2013

Institution: Vanderbilt University


Hello everyone,

While I’ve previously talked about teaching and advocacy, one of the hardest skill sets I’m working to develop is science outreach. On its surface, science outreach doesn’t seem too daunting. All you need to do is go out into the public and connect with them about what you do. Easy, right? But, here are the common problems you run into:

  • Science outreach cannot be easily done around research working hours. Most science outreach is presented to primary and secondary school kids while they’re at school. You need to be able to take a few hours out of your research during the work week (are you crazy?) and head to a local public school.
  • Science outreach programs often involve a lot of time commitment. It’s very difficult to take 1-3 days a week of your thesis project to present outreach projects or educate a class on a specific topic series. Many advisers are extremely hesitant to allow their students to devote that much time outside of their thesis.
  • It can be difficult to do outreach alone, you usually present in groups. I’ve seen several programs at my institution organize graduate students and post docs into teams and send them out with a lesson plan to present a science concept to the local public schools. You need to find a group of public-minded individuals among focused researchers to leave the laboratory, which is not the easiest of tasks.

While these three points make science outreach difficult to do in graduate school, it is by no means an impossible task. There are definitely opportunities to do outreach while still progressing your research.

So, how did I get experience in science outreach? 

Sometimes the first step is keeping your ear to the ground. I was fortunate at Vanderbilt to hear about interest in starting up a public outreach day for microbiology called MegaMicrobe. After talking with the faculty organizer, I learned that I could take a leadership role in helping this event get off the ground. I am corresponding with public school administration, reaching out to our Center for Science Outreach, and putting together activities to showcase on the event day. All of these tasks can be done outside of my research time and the event itself will be held on a Saturday. Not only am I learning a lot about the metro area public school system, but I am also figuring out how I can create other microbiology outreach programs to supplement the MegaMicrobe event throughout the rest of the year. While MegaMicrobe focuses exclusively on microbiology outreach, an outreach event like this could be organized for pretty much any topic of interest.


Another path to outreach is establishing a curriculum or program that closely resembles your lab’s research projects. My lab hosts a science outreach program called the Wolbachia Project, aimed to bring real-world scientific research into middle and high schools through inquiry, discovery, and biotechnology. By undertaking this project, students can research a real-world problem and generate novel data on the insect endosymbiont, Wolbachia pipientis. I’ve had the pleasure of going to local high schools and introducing Wolbachia to students so they may work on the Wolbachia Project as a group during the school year. An added benefit is that I’m promoting the lab’s research so it has more benefit beyond personal development, which helps if you have to convince your principal investigator or advisor of the time commitment.


Well, lucky you Teddy, how else can I get experience?

At its core, public outreach is communicating with the local community. A friend of mine, Amber Beckett, is doing just that. On her own, she wrote a children’s microbe book titled Microbes in the Fridge which familiarizes children with microbial concepts such as food contamination and antibiotics through entertaining rhyme. She is currently selling it on Amazon and hopes to turn it into a series of stories with a simple language and message to teach the public about concepts such as: antibiotic resistance, the microbiome, or infectious disease. This is such a simple idea, but it could make a large impact towards science outreach. I’m hoping to work with her on the possibility of adding activities that will turn her stories into different curricula that can be given as a resource to teachers. Sometimes all it takes to do science outreach is share a cool story, idea, animation, or activity with the public.


Thanks for reading, next month I’ll talk a little about my experiences making the most out of a conference.


And so, it’s poem time:


Science must engage the public and receive their trust,

Without public support, our funding goes bust.

We need to be leaders to teach them our science,

An informed public makes for a lasting alliance.

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