The Art of Communicating Science Effectively

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Tashauna Blankenship, a graduate student in psychology in the Virginia Tech College of Science, practices improvisational techniques in a class on communicating science.
Tashauna Blankenship, a graduate student in psychology in the Virginia Tech College of Science, practices improvisational techniques in a class on communicating science.

Steven Poelzing wheeled a metal stand bearing two bags of intravenous solution onto the stage and began to describe his research.

He could easily have slipped into the language of his discipline with, “My laboratory has found that if the extracellular space significantly modulates the gap junction conduction velocity relationship, then modulating the cardiac extracellular space may be a previously untapped therapeutic target for heart failure in resource-strapped settings.”

Instead, he said, simply, “Salt water may be an extremely effective and cheap way of preventing sudden cardiac death.”

The audience was hooked — and willing to follow Poelzing, an associate professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, on his journey of condensing nearly two centuries of research into a brief and broadly accessible TEDxVirginiaTech talk.

The art of explaining science cogently is so crucial that Virginia Tech has launched its own Center for Communicating Science, said Patricia Raun, director of the new center.

“Public engagement is a critical element to solving many of our most urgent problems,” she said. “In fact, sound public decision-making depends on an engaged, educated, and scientifically literate public.”

The center will host a launch celebration on March 2. Beginning at 4 p.m., graduate students from across the university will give 90-second research talks in the first annual Nutshell Games.

In “nutshell,” Raun arrived at a word that could capture the compression of the students’ research descriptions; she chose “games” because she wanted a more playful connotation than “competition.”

A reception will follow at 5:30 p.m., with Joe Palca, a science correspondent for National Public Radio since 1992, revealing how he brings a range of topics — from biomedical research to astronomy — to life for general audiences.

Several Nutshell Games judges — including Tim Sands, president of Virginia Tech; Karen DePauw, dean of the Virginia Tech Graduate School; and Karen Roberto, director of the Virginia Tech Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment — will each offer their own 90 seconds of wisdom before announcing the winners of the games.

“With the games, as with the center, we want to help train the next generation of scientists and health professionals to communicate more effectively with the public, the media, public officials, and others outside their own disciplines,” said Carrie Kroehler, associate director of the center. “This goes beyond a mere translation of jargon. We want them to learn to communicate lucidly and passionately, to use narrative to convey meaning. In essence, we want them to tell the stories their data reveal.”

For several years, Raun and Kroehler have offered an increasingly popular graduate-level course on communicating science, based in part on the principles of improvisational theater.

“The performing arts have much to teach scientists about communicating their work to a broad audience,” said Raun, a theater professor and professional actor who recently stepped down as director of the Virginia Tech School of Performing Arts to lead the new center.

The center’s work will extend beyond science into a spirit of rich inclusiveness.

“Our differences — whether they’re based on race, culture, religion, education level, academic discipline, or research specialty — can divide us,” Raun said. “But such differences also enrich our lives, broaden our perspectives, and strengthen our collaborations. Arts tools and practices can be used to bridge these divisions, helping participants learn to listen deeply, interact spontaneously, and express themselves vividly.”

The university’s Center for Communicating Science takes inspiration from work done at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Six years ago, Karen DePauw, dean of graduate education at Virginia Tech, heard actor, writer, and director Alan Alda speak about his work in enhancing science communication. She asked Raun to visit Stony Brook to learn more, setting the creation of the new center in motion.

“It’s my dream that innovative techniques for teaching communication will make the relationship between science and the public one that’s close, warm, and exciting,” said Alda, who helped found the Stony Brook center in 2009. “I congratulate Virginia Tech as it strikes out on that path.”

The Center for Communicating Science is supported by the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment; the Graduate School; and the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

Members of the Virginia Tech community and the public are invited to the launch celebration, to be held in the multipurpose room of the Graduate Life Center at 155 Otey St. in Blacksburg.