Inside Rensselaer
* “Communicating Science” Program Launched

Graduate Education Program Coordinator Mecaila Smith ’08 (third from left) joined actor Alan Alda (center) at the Communicating Science program.

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“Communicating Science” Program Launched

Over the summer, Office of Graduate Education Program Coordinator Mecaila Smith ’08 was one of 35 university representatives from around the country who joined veteran actor Alan Alda to participate in an innovative conference dedicated to improving the way scientists communicate with the public. The four-day Communicating Science Summer Institute was organized by the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York, with additional support from the Kavli Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education.

In its second year, the program is focused on finding ways to help scientists speak and write about their work clearly and conversationally in ways non-scientists can understand. The overall goal is to help scientists learn, through experience and practice, how to pay close attention to the needs and reactions of the people they are communicating with so they can adjust their message to be more effective.

“Our participants were an impressive and diverse group from 20 states, full of valuable ideas and great enthusiasm,” said Elizabeth Bass, director of the Center for Communicating Science. “We’re excited at the prospect of continuing to work with them to share ideas and resources about how universities can make science more accessible to the public.”

Alan Alda, visiting professor at Stony Brook and a lifelong science lover, gave the conference keynote address, in which he recalled his years as host of the documentary series Scientific American Frontiers, interviewing more than 700 scientists around the world. Many of them, he said, were brilliant researchers doing fascinating work — but were unable to tell their stories in a compelling way. Too often, he said, they reverted to “lecture mode,” rather than talking in a person-to-person, conversational way that engages the listener. Alda says that his desire to help scientists communicate better sparked the creation of the interdisciplinary Center for Communicating Science in 2009.

With support from the Office of Graduate Education, Smith said that she plans to hold an ongoing series of communicating science programs and exercises with other campus audiences. In July, Smith coordinated a summer undergraduate research program for minorities and women in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, which included an 18-session professional development series.

Smith noted that in also serving as a fellowship adviser, she understands the value of developing an array of “communicating science” skills. Often students submitting fellowship applications must provide personal statements, which, unlike research experience essays and research proposals, are expressive and narrative.

“Students can use the personal statement to set themselves apart from other equally qualified peers, by leveraging their personal experiences and personal histories to demonstrate unique character traits that will help them become a leader in their fields,” Smith said.

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 5, Number 16, October 21, 2011
©2011 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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