Surviving the Archive

If you are a graduate student researching a historical subject, odds are that you will find yourself, at some point, waist-deep in the yellowing folios of an archive. Archival research has a certain appeal – the adrenaline rush cloaked in tweed, the thrill of the hunt with a reader’s card. You are, after all, hunting. Hunting for scraps. Hunting for evidence. You’re a deerstalker and a pipe away from being a much less sexy Sherlock Holmes. And when you do find what you’re looking for, hello cloud nine. It took everything I had not to let out a yelp in the middle of the London Metropolitan Archives when the elusive figure I’d been tracking showed up in the first document I unfolded.

But most of the time, the archive is a slog. It’s a lot of sitting. In fact, it’s rather more like a trip to the dentist than a ride-along with a super sleuth. It’s dull, it’s long, it’s uncomfortable – even a bit numbing – but in the end, it’s what you need, and you’re better for having done it.

Students of early modern subjects in particular will find an archive daunting, especially because research seminars or methods courses usually address general theoretical and historiographical concerns of the discipline rather than specific skills such as paleography. For me, the archive became a second round of coursework, which makes me wonder if it wouldn’t be a horrible idea to have a methods course in one semester and a field methods course in another (which some fields, like architectural history, often require anyway) that would be more tailored to the individual student’s project. It took me several weeks to understand English chancery hand, the structure of British archives, numerical systems of the seventeenth-century (assessing valuations in scores of pounds, shillings and pence, for instance), and early modern systems of measurement. And I am fortunate because I get to do all of this in English. I can’t imagine what my colleagues in Italian archives have to endure.

In the hopes that I can help assuage the anxieties of any newly minted researchers in full panic mode after that inaugural archival experience, here are a few tips on surviving the archive. Continue reading “Surviving the Archive”

Why attend conferences? Here are 5 reasons (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

I was chatting with a friend of mine who is a second year STEM graduate student, and she turns to me and asks, “This may be a stupid question, but why do we go to conferences?”

It made me pause to think for a moment. As graduate students, we get a lot of advice on making the most of conferences, and how to present at conferences, but it’s always assumed that we understand why we go to conferences in the first place. Clearly, for young grad students, this is not always the case, so I decided to make a short list of my top reasons for attending conferences (in no particular order). Continue reading “Why attend conferences? Here are 5 reasons (Throwback Thursday)”

Opportunity for Grad Students: NSF Data Science Workshop

August 5-7, 2015, University of Washington, Seattle campus

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is sponsoring a workshop to convene 100 graduate students from diverse domains of science and engineering and data scientists from industry and academia to discuss and collaborate on Big Data / Data Science challenges. Graduate students are invited to apply for participation by submitting by June 22, 2015 a white paper (no more than three pages in length) that describes a Big Data / Data Science challenge faced by their scientific or engineering discipline or an idea for a new tool or method addressing a Big Data / Data Science problem. Travel support is available.
Read more

A few things I wish someone had told me before I went to my first conference

As conference season approaches, I always have mixed feelings about going. I feel like I’m going to be missing a lot of work time and giving a big presentation can definitely be daunting. Honestly, however, attending conferences and presenting my work have been some of the most important factors in shaping my research.  After chatting with other conference goers and getting feedback on my talk, I came back from a conference last fall with an entirely new game plan for tackling my next research phase. There’s a couple of great previous posts on why to attend conferences and how to get the most out of going to conferences. Here’s my two cents on some things I wish someone had told me before I went to my first conference:

  1. There’s going to be A LOT of talks and posters to see: choose wisely, make a schedule. One of the first things you should do is open up the abstract booklet with the conference schedule (or download the online version). Make notes of which talks/posters to see and have a schedule for where to be and when.
  2. Go to some talks outside of your expertise. Find something that genuinely piques your interest. You never know where you might find inspiration or what you might learn from seeing how work is done outside of your personal research bubble.
  3. Bring business cards. Check out Rutgers Visual Identity website for a downloadable template for designing business cards. I got 250 cards printed at Kinko’s for cheap and they look good.
  4. Have an elevator speech ready for explaining your research. One of the most common ice breakers when you meet people is, “So what do you do?” Be ready to concisely explain what you do and why it’s important at the level of an educated person who has no idea what you’re talking about. Don’t use jargon. Make it quick; up to 30 seconds is fine and if they want to know more, they’ll ask.
  5. Dress nicely. Talk with people who’ve attended the conference before and ask about recommended attire. If in doubt, it doesn’t hurt to directly email the conference organizers. Always air on the side of dressing up than dressing down. You want to make a good impression – you’re probably presenting yourself and your work to almost everyone in your field.
  6. Make a summary of your conference experience. After you return home, go through the notes you took during talks and type them up. Reference the papers you meant to look up. Organize the business cards you got and follow-up with people you said you’d contact. Talk to your adviser about your experience and compare notes with any other fellow students who attended too.
  7. Try to see the city a little bit. You’re there to go to a conference, but why not plan ahead to see some sites while you’re there during break times? There’s typically group dinners organized at local restaurants, like for a school’s alumni or hosted by a sponsor company – check with your adviser on which ones they recommend you seek out. Maybe you could even extend the trip through the next weekend and do some touring!

Why attend conferences? Here are 5 reasons

I was chatting with a friend of mine who is a second year STEM graduate student, and she turns to me and asks, “This may be a stupid question, but why do we go to conferences?”

It made me pause to think for a moment. As graduate students, we get a lot of advice on making the most of conferences, and how to present at conferences, but it’s always assumed that we understand why we go to conferences in the first place. Clearly, for young grad students, this is not always the case, so I decided to make a short list of my top reasons for attending conferences (in no particular order).

1. To meet people
A big reason for going to conferences is to meet and meet up with people. Conferences bring together people from all different geographical areas who share a common discipline or field, and are a great way to meet new people in your field. At a conference you will be able to get together with people from a wide range of backgrounds or from a number of institutions, whom you may not encounter at your home institution. As you build your professional network, conferences also become a good place for meeting up with people in your field that you haven’t seen in a while.

2. For people to meet you
It may not seem like a notable thing, but conferences are also a good way for people to meet you. Yes, you, the lowly second year grad student, presenting for the first time. You may meet someone at a meal, or they may stop by your poster, and within a few minutes, you can make a connection with someone that you might not even have met if you hadn’t attended the conference. This is especially important when you are looking for collaborators, or jobs and postdocs, or, in some fields you may even be looking for committee members. Or perhaps you are just trying to build your professional network. Conferences are another way to get your name and your work out there as you begin to establish yourself in your field of study.

3. To present your work to others
This is one of the more obvious reasons for attending conferences: to present your work! It’s good practice in talking about what you do with a variety of people from similar, related and/or completely different areas of study. Presenting will make you more confident about the work that you do, and gives you new perspective about your work as people may ask questions that make you think about your project differently. At a conference you have the opportunity to get feedback on your work from people who have never seen it before and may provide new insight, as well as from people other than your graduate adviser who are experts in your field.

4. To learn new things in your field
As you view different posters or attend different talks, you hear a lot about things in your field that may be new to you. These could be new techniques, new types of equipment, data that is yet unpublished, or investigators that you may not have heard of. Conferences allow you to get a good sense of what’s going on in your discipline that you might not be aware of living in your neck of the woods. You get to hear about the research of some of the biggest names in your field and of some of the newest faces in it. In addition, conferences give you the opportunity to talk to these people one-on-one about what they are working on, and they may even give you advice on how to develop your project. You have the opportunity to ask presenters questions about their work and the rationale behind it, which you can’t do when reading journal articles!

5. To learn new things outside of your field
This is a two-fold benefit of going to conferences, since not only may you learn things outside your field about other areas of research in your discipline, but conferences also have many sessions for professional development and career advice, particularly at large national conferences. Chances are, when you go to a conference the attendees are united by a single broad topic, such as immunology, but they have many different sub-fields of study, and many projects will be multidisciplinary. Thus you have the opportunity to learn about a different area of your field as a way to develop your dissertation project, for your own personal pursuit of knowledge, or if you are looking to change your research focus. Moreover, conferences (especially the big ones!) have many professional development workshops and seminars for graduate students, where you hear from career professionals about skills such as networking, creating a CV or resume, different types of careers, and interviewing skills.


So why go to conferences? I guess a short summary reason would be: for your continued personal and professional development. Take advantage of these opportunities, even if you can only attend smaller local conferences. Meet people. Network. Learn new things. Who knows, you may even end up leaving a conference with a job offer!

What are some other reasons that you might have for attending a conference? Share them in the comments below!

3D Printing at Rutgers

Since I am going to be using 3D printing as part of my research, I’ve been on the lookout for places to print at Rutgers for quite some time. If you’re also interested to do some 3D printing for your research, or you just want to 3D print something for fun, then I have come across a number of options that might be useful for you. I’m sure there might be even more locations available. So, if you happen to know of any other locations that allow for open use of printers, please let me know.

  1. Douglass Library, Fordham Commons area Fablab, Douglass Campus: on the ground level of the library are two MakerBot Replicator 2’s and computers with design software. You can schedule an appointment to print your project and to get pricing estimates.
  2. Rutgers Makerspace, 35 Berrue Circle, Livingston Campus: MakerBot Replicators and other fun items, like a pool table, are available here. The Makerspace normally has regular drop in hours for printing or just hanging out. The space is run by Rick Andersen who has lots of experience in computers and electronics including web design, Arduino and soldering.
  3. Rutgers Mechanical Engineering Dept., Busch Campus: the department has a few options available for Rutgers affiliates to use, including a Stratasys Objet350 Connex and Stratasys uPrint SE. The contact person for setting up an appointment to get your projects printed and for pricing is John Petrowski (petrows@rci.rutgers.edu).
  4. FUBAR Labs, Highland Park, NJ: Fair Use Building and Research (FUBAR) Labs is a nonprofit that provides a local spot for people with common interests, usually in science and technology, to meet and collaborate. It’s an open community offering classes, workshops, study groups, and long term project collaboration. You can join as a member for 24/7 use of the space, or you can drop by for one of their events to check them out.

“Sabbaticals” for graduate students

Dynamic Ecology is a fantastic blog (written by a small group of contributors) on various topics in academic research and careers, especially in evolution and ecology.  They just featured a provocative new post advancing the idea of taking a “graduate student sabbatical” — when a grad student spends a long period of time somewhere outside of his/her home institution — to achieve research goals (e.g., forming a new collaboration, facilitating field work) or to accommodate family needs (e.g., a significant other with a job elsewhere).  Usually we only think of sabbaticals for faculty members, but grad students often do similar things all the time, even if we typically don’t call them sabbaticals.  It’s a fascinating angle, I recommend checking it out!

Making the most of scientific conferences

Conference experiences have been explored a few times on this blog before, but given the apparent diversity of conference formats across disciplines, I think another perspective might be valuable.  The topic is particularly on my mind since I recently attended the American Physical Society (the major professional society for physicists) March Meeting, which took place in Denver this year.  March Meeting is by no means the only important conference in the physical sciences, but it is probably the biggest — almost 10,000 people, from undergrads to Nobel Prize winners, attend from all around the world.

I’ve been to March Meeting three times now, plus a few smaller conferences.  Now that I’m nearing the end of graduate school, it thus seems like a sensible time to reflect on how to make the most of these trips.  Optimizing your conference experience is important, since conferences are usually a substantial investment of your time, energy, and money (maybe your advisor’s money, but still…), and they can be key opportunities to advance your career.  So here are some thoughts on the matter I’ve acquired over the past few years:

  • Don’t try to attend everything.  This was probably my biggest mistake at earlier conferences, and I think it’s a common one to make.  It’s so easy to have eyes bigger than your brain when you look at the schedule of talks.  I would try to attend everything the first day or two, and then I would inevitably burn out and end up missing or sleepwalking through some more important events later on.  Try to prioritize the absolute most important things on the schedule before the trip, and make a reasonable plan of how much you can actually do.  Be conservative with your judgment.  It’s better to sleep late and attend only a few talks that you really pay attention to, rather than to wake up early and attend everything but be so tired that you don’t learn anything.  So how should your prioritize events?  Well…..
  • Meeting people is the most important thing.  Specifically, it is more important than any talk.  Talks definitely can be useful — they put your finger on the pulse of cutting-edge research and can expand your breadth in unexpected ways — but there are still alternative ways of learning about research.  You can always read someone’s papers if you really want to know about their work.  But there is no substitute for interacting with people face-to-face at a conference.  This is how you form new collaborations and meet people who may someday offer you a job.  So when budgeting your time and energy, opportunities to meet people should always come first.  Skip the talks and just go to the reception afterward if you have to.  Now that I’ve stressed its importance, how do you actually go about meeting people?
  • Be a little shameless.  It’s hard to summon the courage to ask questions during a talk or introduce yourself to someone new, especially when they are much more senior and your questions and ideas seem naive.  But you have to be a little shameless and do it anyway.  The particle physicist Tommaso Dorigo has some nice ideas on his blog about how to come up with questions for these occasions.  The point is that even if your questions are a bit vacuous, or your attempt to introduce yourself and shake hands with that famous person feels awkward and forced, the mere process of getting practice doing it will be beneficial.  By the time your questions and ideas are more substantial, you’ll already feel quite comfortable speaking up.  Despite science’s reputation as being the domain of introverts and nerds, in my experience the scientific community rewards assertive, outgoing social behavior, people who are aggressive about seeking knowledge and maybe even a little self-promoting.  Being “that person who keeps asking questions” will make you stand out and gain respect as a passionate seeker of knowledge.  I played such a role at a few events in the past (ones with small audiences, which made this a lot easier), and several people even told me afterward that they noticed me because of all my questions.  Hopefully I wasn’t too annoying, but at least they noticed me!  But besides meeting new people from scratch, a much easier route is to…..
  • Use your existing connections to make new ones.  It’s always easier to meet people through people you already know.  So if you already know one or two people at a conference, spend enough time with them to meet some of the other people they know.  Getting to know grad students or postdocs at other institutions is a great strategy: as a grad student yourself, it’s usually not too hard to meet and get quality time with other young people (compared to, say, faculty), and once you get to know each other, they should be more than happy to introduce you to their friends at their own institution or other people they happen to know.  And you can do the same for them.  Finally, once you’ve met some new people…..
  • Follow up with the new people that you meet.  This can be tricky, but it’s important if you want those new connections to last.  I have been able to invite a few people I met at previous events to give seminars for our group here at Rutgers, which obviously helped a good deal in solidifying those relationships.  But that’s not always possible.  Sometimes it’s reasonable to send a follow up e-mail to someone you just met.  For example, you might talk to someone about a paper they wrote, and after you go home and read it, you could easily send them an e-mail with a generic pleasantry (“It was nice to meet you at that conference…”) followed by a question or two about the paper.  There’s no need to be sycophantic, but if you are honestly interested in their work, it shouldn’t be hard to come up with a few genuine questions.  A short e-mail exchange like this will go a long way in preventing you both from forgetting each other.  In the worst case, try to track down your new contacts at the next conference, even if it’s a year or two in the future.  They’ll probably be flattered that you remembered them and reached out.  If your memory for names and faces isn’t acute, find other ways of keeping track of the people you meet: for example, you can ask for business cards (not common in science, but apparently common in other disciplines) or keep a list of professional contacts.

I’m sure five years from now my views on conference-going will have evolved even further, but the foregoing points have at least served me well as I finish up my Ph.D. and prepare for the next stage.  So I hope someone else will find them useful as well.  In any case, I’m sure these issues probably vary widely across disciplines (and even within a discipline, too, depending on the conference), so different perspectives are welcome in the comments!

On the Digital Humanities

I recently attended a talk sponsored by the MLIS Colloquium Speaker Series at Rutgers University titled “Digital Humanities: New Roles for Libraries.”  The panel consisted of a diverse group of Digital Humanities scholars, staff, librarians, and specialists who discussed a broad range of topics ranging from an overview of the Digital Humanities to the specific roles of the various members of the panel.  As a PhD student in the Humanities, it was fascinating to learn about the general role of the Digital Humanities as well as the role they can play in my own scholarship.  The panel allowed me to consider the benefits of this kind of technology in academia, and to think about scholarship in ways that I had not previously thought about it.  In the following paragraphs, I intend to share my learning experience with you!

Perhaps an obvious, but very important aspect of the Digital Humanities is that it allows us to conduct research remotely.  The example provided was the Jazz Oral History Project at Rutgers – a project devoted to the recording and digitization of the oral history of jazz musicians and their profession.  By digitizing the oral history interviews, we are able to access these materials from any location, thus eliminating the need to travel to conduct research.

The most interesting aspect about this project, however, is the notion that it changes the way we study history.  We are no longer simply memorizing important people and eventful dates, but instead listening to and learning from the seminal figures that lived this history and are providing us with the opportunity to rewrite it.  As one of the panelists stated, we are experiencing history through storytelling, arguably more exciting than the traditional experience we are used to.

I think the greatest potential of the Digital Humanities lies in the opportunity for collaboration.  Digital Humanities librarians are able to work with scholars from many different departments of the university.  Furthermore, the Digital Humanities can bring together researchers from two seemingly disparate fields, such as Foreign Languages and Computer Science.  This allows for various networking and professional exchanges, but it also provides the opportunity to consider your research from different and multidisciplinary perspectives.  I believe this is especially relevant in today’s academic world; STEM disciplines and the Humanities are often at odds with each other, but it is truly in our best interests to narrow the gap between the two and take advantage of the chance to collaborate.

The Digital Humanities will undoubtedly continue to evolve and prove to be a valuable tool in academic research.  In a world of continual scholarly production across multiple disciplines, the Digital Humanities allows us to engage in both technical and creative endeavors, providing us the opportunity to expand our work and the collective knowledge of humanity in previously unthinkable ways.

Biological Science Boot Camp: Bridging Theory and Experiment

Society is a complex network of people needing to effectively communicate. To advance the standard of living, it is imperative that communication exists between people who articulate different perspectives and work towards a common goal.  For example, teams of medical workers are needed to deliver healthcare, groups of politicians are required to debate public policy, and teams of scientists are vital in every branch of society.

In many instances, the complex nature of society requires scientists, politicians, and medical workers to work towards a shared goal. For this to occur, ideas need to be communicated effectively. Medical workers need to know the expected impact of a life saving drug developed by scientists, and politicians need to determine if the new drug meets regulatory policies.

Before a drug can be put in the hands of trained personnel, a team of scientists with diverse expertise in experimentation and theory need to design and thoroughly test the drug. However, theorists may not have the background to understand the limitations of experiments, and experimentalists may not have the theoretical background to simulate and model data. Effective communication and collaboration can bridge the gap between theorists and experimentalists.

This winter break, I am bridging the gaps in my science by attending the intensive two week interdisciplinary boot camp offered by the Rutgers Center for Integrative Proteomics Research. The boot camp offers an immersive experience for scientists interested in finding potential collaborators, and learning new methods, for exploring theoretical and experimental biology. The main tool being used to teach the many aspects of biology is the Green Fluorescent Protein, a Nobel Prize winning subject important for the advancement of biological science. This boot camp is offered Jan. 6-17, 2014, and is open to all.  For more information click here

Crowdfunding – An NYAS eBriefing

See the New York Academy of Science (NYAS) Science Alliance eBriefing on Crowdfunding: An Emerging Funding Mechanism for Science Research.  Science Alliance is an NYAS initiative designed to “foster lifelong career and professional skills through education, development, and training”

Conferences in Mathematics

Attending conferences is an important part of academic work. Conferences help us share our research with one another, find new collaborators and research topics, and keep up to date on our fields of interest.

I recently attended a bi-annual conference hosted by Integers (The Electronic Journal of Combinatorial Number Theory). I should say that my travel was generously supported by the conference organizers (i.e. the journal, via the NSF I believe) and my department & advisor, although I should say that one part of the conference experience is waiting with bated breath to get reimbursement forms processed. The government shutdown doesn’t help with that long wait either.

Rather than talk about the math, which isn’t really the point of this blog, I wanted to share some of the peripherals — the details of the conference, its format, what the experience is like. I have heard stories from other fields of study, and conferences seem to be very different from place to (figurative) place.

The departure is usually a bit of a rush of packing and preparing slides for presentations. Beamer (or equivalent) have become the de facto presentation method at math conferences, having (somewhat recently…) displaced the long-reigning overhead projector. After a day of travel, including a bit of a drive to Carrollton GA (home of UWG), I got some sleep before the first long day of presentations. I don’t travel much, and it is certainly stressful and tiring, but in the end I do enjoy it, especially driving.

Conference presentations are usually split into short (20 min) and long (50 min) talks, the later being given by specially designated (invited, plenary, keynote etc.) speakers of the conference. Most talks aim to communicate some new results, ideas, or insights into some type of research, and even for a specialized conference, there is a great deal of diversity in the subject matter. Some speakers speak to the general conference audience, while others speak to the very best experts in their slice of the research world. Many of the most interesting talks, to me at least, don’t probe into the depth of the subject, but give a gentle introduction or overview, and then outline or sketch the major new results or ideas. I’m more of a breadth-first guy.

The conference lasts for several days, as many conferences do, with talks back-to-back from about 9 to 5 every day. There are breaks for meals and coffee, and many conversations — professional and social — branch out from the main group during and after the sessions. Conferences are a great way to meet, re-meet, or quasi-meet people. I re-met Brian Hopkins, who has done some work related to my talk, and Bruce Landman, who has also worked in a related area (and is one of the conference organizers). Both of them (and several other audience members) had interesting questions and comments following my talk — one of the best parts of a conference is getting insightful feedback from colleagues. But I also met a few people more socially. I had a short chat about hockey with Cam Stewart after overhearing him talking about the sport, and sat at a table during the conference banquet with Steve Butler, Mel Nathanson, and Neil Hindman. Mel proposed an interesting problem at the conference that provided stimulating discussion and that I’ve found to be an interesting diversion even after the conference ended.

I also met other grad students like myself, many from closer to UWG (from schools like UGA, Georgia Tech, etc.), including Kate Thompson, whose advisor Jon Hanke  spoke here at Rutgers (by coincidence) only a few weeks after the conference (he was not at the conference). Making acquaintances can be quite beneficial — in this case, Kate and Jon know quite a bit about quadratic forms, which is something that is at least tangentially related to some long-term research ideas I’ve kicked around for a little while (but quadratic forms, on the whole, is a foreign subject to me). One day, if it comes up, I know somebody I can email if I stumble across questions or ideas I can’t wrap my head around.

Conferences in other fields can (apparently) be very different — my friends in the humanities tell me that conferences sometimes (often? always?) consist of reading papers aloud and asking prepared questions, while I have seen that some (many? most?) scientific conferences revolve around poster sessions and other such media. But for us in math, at least in my experience, it is a long sequence of presentations aimed (usually) at general information for the research-level audience, describing research ideas and perspectives and leaving technical details for the published page. I like this format, especially because it promotes dialog, discussion, and feedback — and helps people like me reach out a bit and meet others with similar interests and ideas in mathematics.

Communicating science: the elevator speech

In a previous post, I described my experience at a workshop (organized by the Rutgers Graduate School-New Brunswick) on communicating science.  I described the importance of preparing descriptions of your work for a spectrum of likely audiences – having at least some idea of what aspects of your work to emphasize to different audiences and what language or ideas to use are critical.  However, in addition to these more customized versions, having a more generic but highly-polished description of your research that you can recite from memory at any time is probably worth having.  This is often known as the “elevator speech,” since it’s supposed to be something simple and short enough that you can say it during the time you’d spend with a stranger in an elevator.

I’ve had a murky version of this for a while, but it was largely a vague set of examples and analogies I liked to use when describing my research to a friend or family member rather than a well-crafted summary.  But the workshop motivated me to finally develop a better version, so here is my latest attempt:

Every cell in your body contains thousands of different kinds of molecules, stuffed into a very small space and interacting with each other in complex ways.  How does this mess of molecules ultimately do all things that cells do, such as making new cells, extracting energy from food, and transporting nutrients?  And how did the precise interactions of all these molecules develop over millions of years of evolution?  This knowledge is important both for treating human diseases in which these cellular functions go wrong (e.g., runaway cancer cell growth), as well as engineering microorganisms to perform useful jobs, such as synthesizing biofuels with bacteria or making better beer with yeast.  My research uses mathematical models and computational techniques to understand how natural selection changes these molecules and their interactions over time.  We want to use this both to understand how organisms naturally evolved in the past and to predict how they might evolve in the future.

Communicating science: simple language for complex ideas

For those who don’t know, the Rutgers graduate school (through Project AGER) regularly offers a variety of outstanding workshops on professional development for grad students.  I recently attended one on science communication.  The workshop was run by Sangya Varma, of the Rutgers Professional Science Master’s Program and an alumna of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.  (In his post-M*A*S*H career, Alan Alda hosted Scientific American Frontiers on PBS for many years and has been a vocal advocate for popularizing science.)  The center at Stony Brook offers multiple courses, a master’s program, and various workshops to train scientists to better communicate their work with different audiences.  It’s a fascinating and one-of-a-kind place, and I for one would love to take part in some of their activities.

The two-hour workshops at Rutgers provide a small sample of what the center at Stony Brook offers.  After highlighting the basic motivation for scientists to cultivate communication skills and some general principles of how to convey complex ideas in simple ways, we embarked on exercises of “translating” our own research into accessible language.  We also chose from a list of specific audiences (e.g., a family member, a group of investors, a newspaper reporter, etc.) and spontaneously tried to present our research to that audience.

This last activity really hit home for me, since a few months ago I participated in an interview with members of my group about our research for The Daily Targum.  Neither we nor the reporter had much experience with this, and while the resulting article was a nice plug, I was rather dissatisfied with it.  We ended up saying very little in the interview about our specific research activities, instead being sidetracked on general issues about the state of the field.  I also realized how terrible the spontaneous things we say aloud look when put into print.  I learned that one really has to prepare for these things: you have little control over what the reporter will pick to include in the final article from whatever you said in the interview, so you have to give them a very polished set of statements (pretty much at the level of sound bites, which is what they will end up using) that you won’t regret having in print.  Speaking off the cuff makes it too easy to say something careless, incoherent, or just plain silly.

This previous experience and the workshop (plus all those times I felt dissatisfied after trying to explain my work to friends and family) have inspired me to take a more deliberate approach in the future for communicating my science.  I’m starting with a list of audiences that I may likely interact with, based on my research and career interests:

  • Family members and friends
  • Basic life scientists outside of my specific subfield (e.g., molecular biologists)
  • Physicists outside of my subfield (e.g., condensed matter physicists)
  • Biomedical scientists (e.g., cancer biologists)
  • Biotechnology scientists and entrepreneurs
  • Science news media (e.g., Scientific American)
  • Mainstream news media (e.g., NY Times, Rutgers Today)
  • Program officers and review panels at funding agencies (e.g., NIH, NSF, private foundations)

My goal is to prepare short descriptions of my work customized for each of these audiences.  Most of us have at least partially done this implicitly — say, by writing applications to different funding sources or concocting one spiel about your work for your parents and another spiel for your grad student friends.  But I think a more systematic approach is a good future goal.  Even a list of important points or key words to emphasize for each audience is probably helpful; for most of us, we will definitely emphasize slightly different points or use different words for distinct audiences.  For me, I would likely emphasize the “coolness” and basic science relevance of my work when speaking to my friends or peers in science (especially from physics), while to an audience of biotech people I would definitely emphasize future potential applications.