The Way I See It: Houston, we have science communication!

By Mohit Kumar Jolly
Special to the Rice News

It was a dream come true on March 11. Memories dating back from 2008 in Kanpur, India, to 2015 in Boston came to life for me. In 2015, I attended the ComSciCon National Workshop – a series of workshops in science communication organized by graduate students for graduate students – and was motivated to initiate a local ComSciCon chapter in Houston. Almost two years later, we were organizing the two-day (March 11 and 18) inaugural ComSciCon-Houston meeting.

The idea behind ComSciCon workshops is a simple one: train graduate students and postdocs to communicate their research effectively to scientific and nonscientific audiences. Three local chapters of ComSciCon existed in 2015: Cornell in New York, Chicago and Research Triangle in North Carolina. This year’s meeting in Houston was the first of its kind in the Southwest and will hopefully become an annual event.

Mohit Kumar Jolly

Mohit Kumar Jolly

My passion for science communication dates back to 2008, when I co-founded the first campus science magazine – NERD – at IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) Kanpur. NERD provided an avenue for students to share the excitement of their adventures in science and technology, and meanwhile inspire others to join the bandwagon. I also initiated a lecture series titled SCoPE (Science Communication and Public Engagement) at IIT Kanpur where experts in science journalism and communication visited the campus to discuss their journeys in engaging the society on crucial issues pertaining to science and technology and in promoting development of scientific temper. After moving to Rice, driven by my passion for science communication, I joined the Center for Written, Oral and Visual Communication (CWOVC) as a peer consultant in 2014 to help fellow students communicate their work effectively. The 2015 ComSciCon was an amazing opportunity to learn from experts in diverse fields of science communication, and I was brimming with enthusiasm to start ComSciCon-Houston.

The journey from the initial idea of ComSciCon-Houston to its execution was most rewarding for me, not only because it fueled my passion for effective science communication, but also because of the awesome team that came together to organize this event. After returning from the ComSciCon National Workshop, I discussed the idea of initiating a local chapter in Houston with Jennifer Wilson, director of CWOVC. My work as a peer consultant at CWOVC led me to Anneli Joplin, a fellow consultant at the center, and Jennifer Herricks, a guest speaker at a workshop I led on “Communicating Science to Non-experts.” Both of them agreed to help take the initiative forward and joined me as co-chairs. It was in March 2016 that the three of us met with Dr. Wilson to draft a schedule for the workshop.

Over the course of the following year we were joined by an awesome team that met and overcame the logistical challenges of organizing ComSciCon-Houston. Dr. Wilson’s unwavering support, enthusiasm and mentoring gave us all the confidence to be able to pull off the event. We contacted experts from around Texas to participate in panels on science writing, multimedia communication, science policy and science communication careers. Thirty participants who were selected from 96 applicants were accepted for the workshop. This diverse group comprised students from the graduate programs at Rice University, Baylor College of Medicine, MD Anderson Cancer Center and UT Health Science Center at Houston.

Participants at ComSciCon-Houston 2017

Participants, organizers and panelists at ComSciCon-Houston 2017 on March 11. (Photo by Pella Gallerie/Hussain T. Hijazi)

After months of planning, the proceedings kicked off March 11 with a keynote address by Dr. Ricardo Nuila, a physician and author at Baylor. He spoke about a unique framework for science communication called narrative medicine. For me, his most powerful point was that a story could be as powerful as scientific evidence, highlighting the importance of bringing the human element to the fore when communicating science.

The rest of the day was spent in lively discussions in the science writing and multimedia career panels, where I enjoyed the message of “know your audience” being reinforced as the key take-away from all the experts. Then came the time for participants to receive instructions in preparing a script for videos depicting their research. This section was conducted by Elizabeth Festa, associate director of CWOVC, and Jordan Trachtenberg, a core team member of ComSciCon Houston. To me, this hands-on exercise was the foundation stone for the entire workshop, since the participants were not only required to work with each other, but also acquired skills in video production and storyboarding. We had fantastic support from Jane Zhao, director of Digital Media Commons, and Scott Faulk, director of Media Production, Go Local Video, who helped the participants acquire those skills and create their very own multimedia production.

The second day of the conference began with a thoughtful panel discussion on communicating science to policymakers. The most valuable lesson to me from this panel was that “policymakers don’t think the same way as scientists do. So, just throwing information and getting fixated on disproving and discrediting their belief systems and perspectives is not going to help.” The next panel on careers in science communication included former National Science Foundation director Neal Lane, who shared his inspiring experience in communicating with the public on crucial issues such as climate change.

The highlight of day two for me was the sequence of one-minute “pop-talks,” where the participants presented their own research to their peers. The audience held up placards labeled “awesome” or “jargon” to indicate whether the speaker used accessible language or obscure technical terms, reminiscent of the national workshop.

One of the goals of this student-initiated workshop was to build a community of graduate students who are passionate about science communication. The success of the inaugural ComSciCon-Houston augurs well for those who share this goal. The contagious passion for science communication exhibited by each participant, panelist and organizing team member fills me with optimism that ComSciCon-Houston will serve as a forum for excellence in science communication in Houston for years to come. Houston, we have science communication!

Mohit Kumar Jolly earned his Ph.D. in bioengineering in December 2016 and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics.

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.