SciComm Advice: Start at the End (what are you trying to do?)

Girl drawing in a sketchbook with art supplies on table around her

I frequently get asked by students and faculty what kind of advice I have for a student interested in sharing science. Some of these students want careers as scicomm professionals. Others want to do scicomm as a scientist. And others still just know someone who is looking for advice. This post is written as direct-to-the-seeker advice.

Feel free to share it and chime in about the advice you share or have found most helpful — share in the comments or on Twitter!

As a starting point, I typically I recommend folks read “Unveiling Impact Identities: A Path for Connecting Science and Society” (link to paper). Julie Risien and Martin Storksdieck’s paper is about about how to meld what they call research and impact identities. Reading this paper can help you orient you to…yourself.

This paper is relevant because there are two key components to effective, meaningful, and sustainable public engagement/outreach. They are: (a) what is meaningful and compelling to you, and (b) what is needed by the stakeholders you care about reaching.

When you have had some time to think about what you are driven by and who that could be meaningful to, you’re in a stronger position to start planning/proposing engagement activities.

Then, it depends a lot on what kind of stakeholders you want to reach. In the case of a student studying some aspect of aquatic ecology, you might ask: Are they anglers, fisheries managers, policy makers, private land owners, recreators, K-12 educators, or someone else entirely?

While it is tempting to say, “Science matters to everyone,” that’s not an effective or sustainable approach to public engagement. 🙂 Language, strategies, communication materials, etc., are most productive when they are tailored to the values and needs of specific stakeholder groups. 

Next, it is crucial to be crystal clear on how much time and resources you’ll have. Are you doing this project alone or with fellow students? Do your advisers have any (a) experience with this type of engagement or (b) interest in helping with it? Do they have existing relationships that you can build on to help you get started and increase the chances of the engagement being longer-term and thus more meaningful for the target stakeholders?

Keep in mind that your answers to all these questions can (and usually do) vary throughout the lifespan of (a) your career and (b) any given project. The important thing for sustainability and efficacy is to make some decisions to provide a reasonable scope for a project at any point along the way.

Location-specific advice

After you’ve considered the big picture questions, you may also want to consider where you are developing your engagement plan. I’m going to walk you through advice I give to students working in or wanting to share science in Wyoming, where I’m based. You can adapt the overarching framework of this advice to the specific resources, organizations, and considerations of your locale.

Here are some thoughts specific to public engagement in Wyoming:

If you’re not sure where to start, it’s best to avoid being a solution in search of a problem. 🙂

Ideally, that means you start by orienting yourself to who on campus is already doing public engagement in Wyoming. Check out the Biodiversity Institute’s programs, along with the Science Kitchen, Science Road Show, Science and Math Teaching Center, the Wyoming Science Fair, and the Women in STEM campus day, along with COPSE. Those are all potential avenues for learning more about effective public engagement in a Wyoming-specific context.

Doing this will help you understand what kinds of opportunities there might be to connect your research to existing efforts, and thereby avoid having to reinvent the wheel. 🙂

Leverage your mentors’ existing relationships within Wyoming to identify ways that you could contribute here. Leaning on that aquatics/fisheries student example: Does the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s fisheries team have anything going on that’s relevant to your research, or any needs you could meet, relating to public engagement? It’s best to have an open conversation rather than assuming that we have things they need from us. But, it can be quite productive to simply approach collaborators and partners and say, “I want to share my science outside academia. Would you be willing to chat with me about what you’re working on that does that and/or how I could do that in a way that supports what you already have going?”

Next steps & resources

Everything I’m telling you here is (a) best practices grounded in the science of science communication and (b) covered in the courses I regularly teach in Zoo/Phys and the Program in Ecology and Evolution (PiEE). The Haub School also offers a host of fantastic courses that teach students how to effectively work with stakeholders. Finally, starting in the fall, the UW Science Communication Initiative (WySCI) will start offering trainings again. You can get notifications about that by subscribing to our weekly updates on the WySCI website.

If you’re not a student based in Wyoming, it’s a great idea to look around for coursework across your campus that could help you cross-train and build/practice the skills you need. You might be consider courses in graphic design, journalism, public speaking, conflict resolution, project management, cultural studies, creative writing, pedagogy (teaching training) and more.

If you want to dig deeper into the whole framework of good practices in public engagement, here are two resources from my scicomm classes:

Science of Science Communication course syllabus

Applied Principles of Science Communication course bibliography

Article: In the space between: Public information officers in science

This invited article in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment clarifies the role that public information officers play in modern science communication. It is essential reading for scientists looking to share their science and for science-trained folks considering moving from research into scicomm. The full article is available for free here.

Excerpt: “To some, the word “promotion” smacks of hype and spin. It’s certainly true that PIOs choose the most interesting and important stories to share, but we’re also keenly aware that our efficacy is contingent upon the trust of the communities we represent, the media, and citizens.

Science PIOs fill a space between scientists and journalists – and increasingly, between scientists and public audiences more directly. Rather than focusing deeply on one area of science, we are constantly scanning the horizon, searching for stories that will catch the attention of our audiences and showcase the accomplishments of our employers or clients. As a result, scientists collaborating with PIOs gain considerably from the PIO’s skillset, experience, and contacts. By working with a good PIO, a researcher can position their work to have real societal impact, far beyond what they could achieve alone.”

Full citation: Invited. Merkle, B.G., M. Downs, and A. Hettinger. 2019. In the space between: Public information officers in science. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 17(8): 474-475.

Drawn to Science Communication: Art-Science Synergy as a Career and a Way of Life

I recently gave an invited career talk at the 2020 annual conference of the Ecological Society of America. In case others are interested, I thought I would share the video (with captions) here.


There have also been a number of responses to this talk which have led me to consider doing some recorded Zoom/video conversations, to capture discussion, advice, and more. Stay tuned for more on that front, and feel free to submit questions, advice, and resources via the comments section!

I don’t usually post selfies, but that’s about to change. OR, some things #scientistswhoselfie and #sketchyourscience have in common.

20150808_Biodiversity Inst workshop (2)_cr.jpg
Me (left) teaching a #sketchingforscientists workshop in Laramie, Wyoming

I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent Science op-ed that was a personal attack against a well-known and successful science communicator and neuroscientist active on Instagram and other communication and engagement platforms. Among other things, I see this issue as relating to insecurities, negative social conditioning, and lack of support that folks often face when pursuing careers in the arts, or even considering trying out an art form.  Continue reading I don’t usually post selfies, but that’s about to change. OR, some things #scientistswhoselfie and #sketchyourscience have in common.

Gillette News Record picks up press release about grad students’ interpretations of local murals

Gillette news and record

In Autumn 2017, I led a co-taught graduate seminar course called “The Art of Science Communication.” The first project we assigned to the students, who were all PhD candidates in the sciences, was to select a mural in downtown Laramie. They each developed an audio script (which they then recorded) that interpreted their chosen mural in a way that connected the mural to their own research.

Their research ranged from super-massive black holes to birds that are inadvertent gardeners in tropical rain forests. We collaborated with the Laramie Public Art Coalition and the Laramie Mural Project to make the recordings available online. And, the University of Wyoming Press Office helped us distribute a press release about the project that was picked up by the Gillette News Record

Learn more about the course, other communication and engagement projects developed by the students, and more, at the course website they maintained: