Science Communication: A Neu- way to Write, and Beyond


by Melissa Troyer


11 October 2015

Students in cognitive science, neuroscience, and other disciplines at UCSD look for new ways of communicating science, including NeuWriteSD.org.

As recent Pew Research polls indicate, views on key issues (like climate change and genetically-modified foods) often differ drastically between the public, in general, and scientists, in particular. Like the kids whose opinions changed after actually visiting a lab and speaking with scientists, it stands to reason that many people’s opinions of science (and scientists) might change given more experience communicating with scientists.

Two years ago, grad students from the Neurosciences program formed the San Diego branch of a group called NeuWrite--a national organization with a major goal of increasing the effectiveness of science communication in neuroscience and related fields. NeuWrite started at Columbia University, where professional writers (often from creative writing and MFA programs) meet with graduate students and other scientists. The two groups had the common goal of sharing accurate and compelling science with the public.

When Ashley Juavinett and Emily Reas of the Neuroscience program formed the local branch of NeuWrite in 2013, their goals were slightly different. Rather than teaching writers about science, NeuWrite takes a different approach, providing scientists an opportunity to hone writing skills, talk with other scientist-writers, provide additional science outreach in the community, and network with other science writers locally and nationally.

In the cognitive science department, several students (including myself) have joined in on the excitement. As NeuWrite hosted its (third!) yearly call for new members from departments across the UCSD campus and beyond, I took a moment to reflect on why I think the group is important. Certainly, I have written more (and about more topics than my focused area of research in language and memory) since joining NeuWrite. But the best thing about the group is the collaborative approach to feedback. NeuWrite posts weekly, but we meet every other week to provide feedback, as a group, on one another's writing. The diverse group students means the feedback is also diverse, critical, and so helpful--I’ll be darned if it’s not best way I have found to improve my writing. As several other members reminded me as they pitched NeuWrite to new potential members, it's also a great way to stop using so much science jargon and to keep yourself honest. Especially when it comes to write about stuff we know a lot about, the logical chain that seems so obvious in our heads does not always translate to the page.

NeuWrite has also partnered with other organizations like Pint of Science to bring neuroscience to the public. Led by Kerin Higa, neuroscience grad student and NeuWrite outreach maven, NeuWrite sponsored three events bringing scientists to bars to tell their stories to the public. One such event involved Neuroscience’s Next Top Model, in which several professors championed different (mostly animal) models as being key to understanding how the brain and mind function--including Dr. Gary Cottrell, head of the Cognitive Science interdisciplinary program, who battled on behalf of the computer model.

NeuWriters have gone on to publish elsewhere (Scientific American, among other places), attend prestigious national conferences on science communication (e.g., ComSciCon), and connect with many other science writers both in San Diego and nationally. Last year, NeuWrite had a chance to meet with Alan Alda--a public figure who has taken it upon himself to open an institute dedicated to science communication. The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science hosts programs to train current scientists to become better science communicators. When NeuWrite had the opportunity to meet with Mr. Alda, he reminded us that, although science is often viewed as something done in a lab, far away from the everyday sights of life, science is pursued by PEOPLE. Scientists are people who have stories, and communication is all about connecting: sharing something from one person's life with someone else. Communicating science is no different.

One of cognitive scientist's newest faculty members, Dr. Bradley Voytek (who is also well-known as a science communicator--see his blog), is currently leading a seminar on communicating science this quarter. The seminar takes the form more of a workshop where a different community member takes the lead each week, leading discussions on communicating science to various groups (including other scientists as well as to the public and to politicians, among other groups). A current assignment, following on the heels of a discussion about basic public speaking skills, is for students to record themselves giving a five-minute speech on a scientific subject. My personal favorite take-home from the course so far is the reminder that scientists--just like any communicators--should always know their audience before arriving to share their work.

Of course, sharing science with the public is a wonderful goal, but often a scientist's first concern is how to share sciences with other scientists, whether it be in the form of a conference talk, a journal article, or a grant application. During the second-year class in the cognitive science department, Dr. Marta Kutas, department chair, focuses on preparing students to produce a coherent scientific project over the course of the year. Just as importantly, the course is focused on teaching young scientists to communicate that project to a diverse audience of scientists. To extend the goals of the class, several students formed a group during 2014-2015 school year. They met outside of class to discuss short writing pieces including conference abstracts, grant proposals, and parts of their second-year projects. The groups is expanding to include more students who can come to the group for collaborative editing, much in the style of NeuWrite.

If you are interested in learning more about NeuWrite or any of the other organizations described here, shoot an email to neuwritesd@gmail.com or check out the website to find our next meeting time. And if you are a cognitive scientist interested in collaborative science writing, contact me to join our on-going discussion.