Honing communication skills for science trainees is, customarily, not on top of anyone’s ‘to-do’ list. Or perhaps it is assumed, mistakenly, that you automatically get better at it with time. The situation isn’t a whole lot different whether you’re doing your training in India or US.
Communication skill, like any other, has to be consciously inculcated. You have to take the time to get better; and this time is interpreted as “time away from the bench”, and therefore not actively encouraged (if not denied outright). And it is not easy to communicate well. Despite its immense importance to scientists, opportunities to add these skills to your professional toolkit are not that many - the Young Scientist Series (YSS) is one of these precious few opportunities. Produced by iBiology, the YSS is a video series that features young scientists giving talks about their research and discoveries. iBiology has partnered with the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation and the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Submissions for 2017 competition are still open (till December 15 2016).
To apply to the first round, interested candidates (PhD students or postdocs) need to submit a short ‘statement of interest’, written description of a discovery catered to a general (non-scientific) audience, their CV and a letter of recommendation. Shortlisted candidates from this round do an “audition” via Skype. More details can be found here. Winners, chosen from both these rounds based on both their science and clarity of their presentations, get an all-expense paid trip to San Francisco, California; where they will participate in communication workshops organised by Alan Alda Center.
Mohit Jolly, recently minted PhD from Rice University in Texas, and graduate from IIT Kanpur prior to that, was one of the winners of last year’s competition. He describes this training, “the Improvisation Program Director at the Alan Alda Center, Valeri Lantz-Gefroh, who coached us during training, asked — What is the one message you would like me to take home from your talk? I responded immediately: how math modeling and experimental biology can come together to offer novel insights into biological systems. In that epiphanic moment, I had discovered how to pitch my talk.”
“We did many improvisation exercises which taught me key lessons. For instance, you should always evaluate: what your audience already knows, what do you want them to get from you, and how do you take them from the former to latter without jumping steps in between. So if you were to explain what a cellphone is to someone who has time-travelled from 1000 years ago, where would you begin? These lessons sensitized me not only towards different sets of audience, but also their differing needs. A clinician and a molecular oncologist, for example, can have very different expectations from a talk on cancer biology. How should a speaker balance them? These are important things to think about when planning your talk.”
The organisers of YSS are especially keen on more entries from India. This is a great opportunity to showcase to the world, the research being done in India.
Next article in our ‘science communication’ series: recently concluded ‘Euraxess Science Slam 2016’.