ComSciCon-GTA Advice and Knowledge Gained from a Past Attendee by Zi Yan Chen

By: Zi Yan Chen, BSc., University of Toronto 

ComSciCon is an  annual workshop series and science communication conferences which aim to help young scientists, mainly in graduate school, become aware of different ways to effectively communicate to audiences of different backgrounds. This October, scientificanada contributor Zi Yan Chen attended the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) edition of the conference. Now she shares some takeaways.

As a science researcher, one of the most important skills we learn beyond being able to design hypotheses and think critically about data, is communication. Whether it is presenting your work at a scientific conference, applying for grants and scholarships, or even explaining your work to friends and family of a non-scientific background, being able to present and explain your research is a skill that is often undervalued, deserves recognition, and needs a lot of practice. 

I have always taken an interest in writing and working with youth in my undergraduate days. In my undergraduate years, I’ve worked as a paid writer and editor for a student-run magazine, and volunteered bi-weekly at the Royal Ontario Museum as a hands-on facilitator, teaching biodiversity. But at that time, my direction was aimless- I was doing what I loved to do, but I did not see myself working as a science teacher in the future. 

Once I entered graduate school, I started participating in Let’s Talk Science and other science outreach initiatives that aim to both inspire young people, mainly in high school, and show them what research is all about. These experiences forced me to think more critically about how I can better connect with others not in my field. However, it wasn’t until I heard of ComSciCon that I started to become aware of a growing community of scientists that prioritize communicating science to the public. This community consists of scientists from diverse backgrounds who are eager to share their research with the community, and share the different forms of science communication that we can use that are already at our disposal. This inspired me to attend ComSciCon-GTA.

Those of us who participated at this conference were selected by the executive planning committee back in June 2020. However, this was no ordinary “sit back and relax” conference. Prior to the conference, all the participants had to write a piece describing their research to a layman audience, which were then assigned to be peer-reviewed, and finally given feedback by an expert. Furthermore, throughout the conference, every one of us had to participate in the pop-talks, a 1 min “elevator-pitch” styled summary of who you are, what work you do, and how you hope your work will help others. Although it was a bit nerve-wrecking to present my work to an audience of 50+ people I have never met before, it was incredibly reassuring to see so much support from the audience. 

More traditional conference activities included panels and workshops hosted by experts. The invited speakers, Dr. Sara Mazrouei, Sarah Habibi, Dr. Rachel Ward-Maxwell, Vishnu Ramcharan, Dan Falk, and the keynote speaker Dr. Cylita Guy gave inspiring talks, including tips to developing a social media presence, suggestions for those who are aspiring science writers/journalists, how to connect and engage with your community about your work, and even how to develop your own effective elevator pitch. While COVID-19 has unfortunately quashed all possibilities of in-person meetings, the virtual conference, using the platform Remo (which wasn’t complete without our virtual dining tables and virtual limousines, of course) allowed the attendees ample opportunities to network amongst ourselves, and to participate in our break-out group sessions both during and between the talks.

Overall, I would definitely recommend ComSciCon to anyone who is curious about starting their own science communication but not sure where to begin. Here are the five key takeaways that I got from attending the conference: 

  1. Branding is very important to developing a social media presence. When thinking about your brand, take some time in the beginning to think of a name that aligns with your work and the content that you plan to post. This is also important for recruiting participants for a research study.
  1. Your health and wellbeing is of foremost importance. If you are a current graduate student thinking to do SciComm in your spare time, it is helpful and potentially less stressful to establish a schedule- this is also important to help maximize engagement from your audience if you are planning to post regularly on social media or your blog. That being said, as Sarah Habibi mentioned in her talk, if you spend an excessive amount of time on deciding what to post, and not taking care of other priorities, maybe you should step-back and re-evaluate on what it is that excites you and is also enjoyable for you to post.
  1. Engage with your audience. When sharing new information with others, especially to those who are not necessarily familiar with your background, it is important to consider your audience’s point of view: first, what interests do they have and then how can you make your research connect with their lives?
  1. Keep your writing simple and jargon-less. This will depend a lot on the outlet that you would like to submit to and who the targeted audience is. Reading what you have written out loud may also help to keep the sentences clear to understand. Also, try to keep the length of the article short and to the point. 
  1. Practice, practice, practice! This seems like a no-brainer, but most of us are not born with perfect science communicating skills. Take advantage early on with any opportunities to practice, however, make sure that it is worth your effort. As our keynote speaker Dr. Cylita Guy mentions, think of the three P’s: passion, payment, prestige. 

Moving forward, I hope to take use these lessons to further develop my social media presence on Twitter and Instagram, and my own website where I plan to later post my own writing pieces. Although I am prepared it will take years of “failures” to establish myself as an effective science communicator, I am not going to stress myself right now in coming up with a brand. I will continue to network and experiment with different ways to communicate, and I am excited to see what the future will hold. 

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