ComSciCon-Cornell aims to reach all communities

Paul Hirsch, Scott Peters and David Wolfe at ComSciCon
From left, alumnus Paul Hirsch, Scott Peters, professor of development sociology, and David Wolfe, professor of plant and soil ecology, at ComSciCon-Cornell July 14.

For the third year, Cornell is holding ComSciCon-Cornell, a science communication workshop organized by graduate students, for graduate students and postdocs. During the two-day event (July 14 and 22), participants interact with science communicators across STEM disciplines. The aim of the workshop is to equip young researchers with tools to communicate scientific ideas more effectively to their colleagues and, especially, to nontechnical audiences.

All ComSciCon workshops contain “pop-talks” and a written piece of science communication. “Pop-talks” are one-minute oral presentations by participants on their research, during which audience members give feedback by holding signs indicating how clear the speaker is. The emphasis is on jargon-free and concise speech. Written pieces are peer-reviewed by participants and science communication experts who give one-on-one feedback to each participant.

Workshops involve panel discussions facilitating dialogue between invited experts and attendees on key issues in science communication. This year, the organizers put a special emphasis on communicating to people who are traditionally underrepresented in science outreach efforts.

“We started to organize the workshop around election time,” said organizer Ben Cohen, a doctoral student in biomedical engineering, “and that gave us a lot to think about.”

The session “Diversity and Inclusion” focused on making science communication more inclusive by reaching out to underserved audiences, including people who are not seeking scientific information or who might distrust science. “Here, the focus is different from ‘Outreach and Education,’ a panel discussion about how to talk to nonscientists. We want to reach people from diverse ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds and make our stories as accessible as possible,” said organizer Kristen Brochu, a doctoral student in entomology and co-president of the campus Science Communication club.

“This session is about how to communicate cross-culturally and ensure that we represent diverse perspectives,” said Brochu. “People sometimes forget to acknowledge their audience’s background, but it’s not the right way. We also want to think of ways to support underrepresented scientists and communicators and strengthen their voices within the community.”

In “Public Science Discourse and Socially Sensitive Topics,” panelists share their experience in civic engagement. “The idea is how to discuss a topic that is politically charged in a way that is not political,” said organizer Eugene Law, a doctoral student in soil and crop science. “There are words that have become politically charged, but we need to make sure that science becomes universal.” Audience and experts also debate when and how it is appropriate to bring science into political debates. This session also reflects on reframing the scientific approach. The organizers explained it is different for scientists to say, “Here is what science needs to find out” than to ask the public, “What is important to you, what do you want us to find out?”

The 45 ComSciCon-Cornell participants (selected from 80 applications based on a writing sample) hail from Cornell University as well as several private and public universities in New York state. Eight of the 18 speakers are from outside Cornell. Speakers from Cornell include communications staff, professors and graduate students. All the organizers are involved in the Cornell BEST (Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training) program.

Each year a few organizers from the previous year work with new volunteers and attendees to put on the next year’s event. This overlap, with guidance and logistical support from the BEST program, contributes to retain institutional memory. “I see my role as helping reduce any barriers or obstacles faced by the energetic organizers of ComSciCon-Cornell, and then stepping aside to let them work their magic,” said BEST program senior director Susi Varvayanis.

ComSciCon-Cornell 2017 was funded by several campus offices and departments.

Elodie Gazave is the communications and marketing specialist for the BEST program.

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Joe Schwartz