Thursday, December 15, 2016

In a world awash with data, scientists must carefully target their audiences to effectively convey the impact of  their research.

Kayleen Schreiber, a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience, studies speech perception—how the human brain makes sense of  speech sounds we hear and what processes allow for that to happen.

Schreiber shares her research publicly through her blog. She created the blog in a new interdisciplinary graduate-level course titled Science Communication in the Digital Age, offered for the first time this spring at the University of  Iowa.

“I want to show people that science is a very challenging, creative discovery process that helps us understand more about the world around us,” Schreiber says on her blog. “I want to show people that science plays a critical role in our society.”

Science Communication in the Digital Age

Funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Science Communication in the Digital Age is administered by the Graduate College. With lecturers from the Departments of  Rhetoric and Journalism and Mass Communication, this course aims to teach a diverse set of  communication skills necessary for both academic and non-academic careers.

The new course helps students develop skills for communicating with lay and scientific audiences. Students receive training in audio-video production and basic website design. They learn how to develop a professional on-line presence that promotes deeper understanding of  science and connects research with solutions to problems facing society.

“Graduate students often need to learn skills in conjunction with learning content,” says Jennifer Teitle, assistant dean for graduate development and postdoctoral affairs at the UI. “Just because you learn deep content does not mean you know how to communicate it to a variety of  audiences. How do we teach that?”

Schreiber feels that the course is very relevant to her current work.

“The course gave me the opportunity to try new things, teach myself  new skills, and gain experience in the areas I want,” Schreiber says. “I especially appreciate that the course is designed to help me meet my own specific goals. We each decided on our own projects that we would complete based on what we wanted to get out of  the course.”

Maria Noterman, a second-year student in neuroscience, found the course material insightful and helpful. Noterman’s class project involved building the blog MNotes, where she discusses juggling graduate school, health, and horses (

“This course has also helped me to talk about my research with family and friends who are non-scientists without causing their eyes to glaze over,” says Noterman, whose research focuses on Cav1.2, the predominant calcium channel in the brain.

Science Communication, more than a course

The goal of  communicating science is to provide all the information the listener needs to understand a story. For the general public, it is most important to answer the “why this matters” question.

Dan Eberl, professor of  biology and faculty in genetics, is one of  the principal investigators of  this project. He wants students in the course to expand their professional opportunities outside traditional academic roles.

To make themselves more marketable as scientists, graduate students have to learn how to communicate their research to a general audience without diluting the essence of  their research.

“There are expanding opportunities for our graduates outside the academy. Within the academy, there are new non-traditional tenure-track positions,” Eberl says. “We feel it is important to provide instruction and resources that will allow students to develop expertise and help them prepare for those kinds of  careers.”

Schreiber credits the University of  Iowa for providing this professional development opportunity to graduate students.

“Not many universities embrace the fact that most students don’t go into tenure-track jobs in academia,” Schreiber says. “I am pretty lucky that Iowa not only accepts this but offers us resources like this course to advance our specialized training."