Oct. 5, 2020

HPI Science Communication Workshop: A Practical Guide to Those Awkward Moments

Article by Vickie Li (MSc Student, McKay lab, UCalgary)

Our society is evolving faster than ever before. The scientific community does not do research in an isolated world and values the importance of support from the general public. Scientists nowadays actively engage in scientific outreach to make science more accessible and to amplify its true impact on the whole society. Inevitably, the majority of community members, ranging from new trainees to even experienced PIs, have run across some of the more common "awkward moments" when endeavouring to engage with the general public who is typically less scientifically literate. To help us deal with these challenging situations for the sake of enhancing our communication with the public, HPI hosted a two-hour online workshop on Thursday, September 17, 2020, hosted by HPI faculty member, Dr. Constance Finney, an infectious disease immunologist with rich experiences in public outreach throughout her career. Moreover, the director of Snyder institute, and HPI faculty member, Dr. Derek McKay, also participated in the workshop and shared his opinions.

The first 90 minutes of the workshop were devoted to interactive activities specifically designed to help attendees work through various real-life examples derived from Dr. Finney’s own experiences as well as those of her colleagues during outreach events. After a brief poll as a warm-up, the participants were divided into small groups of threes and role-played four selected scenarios:

  1. A member of the public asks you how to treat their mysterious parasitic infection.

  2. An unexpected interrogation from the public.

  3. Refuting scientific misinformation.

  4. Calming down panicking audience from fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD).

Each participant had the chance to act out in their small group by role-playing one either the questioner, responder, or audience. Even though we could not meet one another in-person, we still took advantage of the virtual interactions to vividly experience these "awkward moments." After each scenario, we reconverged and shared our personal thoughts on these "awkward moments" among one another, and Dr. Finney provided the attendees with practical tips to disentangle from these situations.

After a brief break, we entered the second part of the workshop focusing on the ethics of using animals in research. It’s not unusual that researchers working with animals receive interrogation from the public on this controversial topic. To help us better answer these questions regarding animal ethics in scientific research, Dr. Finney outlined the fundamental principles of animal ethics and important facts on the standards and regulations implemented in Canada. Dr. McKay, as an experienced and renowned leader in the area of host-parasite interaction research, also shared his point of view and gave the attendees valuable guidance.

Other attendees and I received valuable and practical information and suggestions this safe and enjoyable environment during the workshop. As a new graduate student, I had never thought of how to better communicate science with the general public, thinking it doesn’t concern me. Now after this workshop, I have realized the urgent need and importance of acquiring these skills early on in our careers. I feel very thankful to HPI for holding such an amazing workshop and a big thank you to Dr. Finney for her invaluable work on facilitating this workshop. Thanks also to the HPI trainee organizing committee (Blanca Callejas and Affan Siddiq) for arranging this workshop. I am looking forward to more and more wonderful activities from HPI in the coming days.