Category: Science Communication

Planning a New Course in Science Communication

Next term I’m launching a new 4th year undergraduate course in Science Communication. I’ve wanted to teach a course on this topic for a while as I think that teaching our students how to communicate science to a range of audiences will be useful to them. Ideally we’ll get to a point where they can enter into dialogues with others about science, rather than having the interaction be one sided.

It’s been fun to think about what topics to cover in the course and what order to present them to the students. I’ve also been developing assignments for the course that I’m hoping will be useful for the students to complete and am aiming to have them be interesting and enjoyable too. Several months ago I sent out a call on Twitter to crowdsource resources and ideas and I was not disappointed!

My own relationship with science communication has been an ever-changing journey. I recognized its importance when I was a plant biology graduate student during the mid-90’s and consistently found myself at parties having conversations with people about genetic engineering. Most of these conversations were frustrating for me as I felt that I wasn’t very effective at articulating my viewpoint and was very shocked by the beliefs (true or not) that other people held about the technology. I’d like to think that I’ve become a better communicator since then, but I recognize that I still have a lot to learn. I’m looking forward to my new class next term and will be learning a great deal of new content and ideas alongside my students.

I received very little explicit instruction or education about how to be an effective science communicator. I think that this is a skill of increasing importance, not only in academia, but in other career paths that my students may choose once they leave the university. I think that I have an obligation to engage with various audiences about my science and science in general due to the fact that my research is funded by the public. I also think that if we as scientists do not have a role in crafting the narrative about science and the process of doing science that other incorrect or harmful narratives will be offered up by others. I’m hoping that by teaching this course I will be giving my students some of the tools that they will need to be effective and engaging ambassadors for science and that this is a worthy endeavour.



Doctor Al Digest 28

A few things that I’ve found interesting in the past few weeks:

A nasty case of alleged sexual harassment drives home the point the dangers that are inherent in a system where a graduate student has only one faculty member as their research advisor. It’s important as a grad student to develop a network of mentors.

In some cases, it is worth your time to improve a skill that you are poor at, especially if it is a required skill for your career. In many cases though, it is a better use of your time and efforts to capitalize on your strengths.

The “Dear HBR” podcast is excellent, but the Harvard Business Review “Women at Work” podcast is phenomenal! The podcast has recently returned for its second season and is better than ever! Honest, frank discussions of the challenges faced by professional women in their workplaces and practical advice on how to navigate this minefield. I can not recommend it enough!

I’ve written my second column for The Conversation Canada on the Venom movie that opened last night. The focus is on symbiosis and how an alien could go about hacking a human host.



Why I will continue to use the title Dr.

I was a bit annoyed yesterday when the decision by the Globe and Mail to update their style guide came across my Twitter feed. I get to be an associate professor of biology upon first reference in an article, but become Ms. McDonald on second reference. I guess this is how the Canadian Press have been doing things for years, but I find it irritating and I’m going to tell you why.

I’m a professional and an expert and earned a credential, namely a Ph.D., that reinforces these facts. Now you may ask why I need these facts reinforced. It is not because I have a gigantic ego, think I’m better than everyone else, or am a member of the non-existent Canadian “elite”. The fact that I’m a professional and an expert needs to be enforced regularly because they are questioned regularly several times each term due to the fact that I don’t look like a typical scientist. There are huge social and cultural contexts at play here and that Dr. title is therefore really important to people like myself; that is women and persons with disabilities.

I can only assume that because I look younger than I am and because I am female that people feel free to tell or ask me:

1) that I don’t look like a scientist (hello, stereotypes!)

2) I’m too pretty to be a scientist (umm, these two things are not mutually exclusive like you seem to think they are, and ewwwwww!)

3) Which professor do you work for? (I’ve run my own research lab for 8 years thank-you very much)

4) I thought you were so and so (insert some other female academic here), I’m so confused! (We are both petite and female presenting so we must be interchangeable then)

The above are interactions that I’ve had at academic science conferences.

My credentials and authority often also get challenged in the classroom. This is not a unique experience given that it happens to most of the other female professors that I’ve mentioned it to. We were commiserating about it over lunch a few years ago and our male colleagues were in disbelief because it never happens to them.

That doctorate is one item that I can use to level the playing field in academic science. I earned it, I need it, and you can pry it out of my cold, dead hands.


Service to Professional Societies

I have recently finished a fair amount of service to two professional scientific societies and wanted to write a post about what I have found valuable and challenging about these experiences.

I did my first stint of professional society service as a post-doctoral fellow and represented both students and post-docs on the executive of that society. I was a valuable experience and similar in many ways to the various student governments and committees that I’d been a part of in graduate school. It was a fantastic opportunity to network and be involved in selecting the professional development opportunities offered to our early career members.

For the next several years and continuing up to most recently, I’ve served as a judge for various student presentation, poster, and best paper awards. This has allowed me to gain an understanding of what constitutes a great research story and how it can be communicated effectively. I’ve learned a huge amount doing these activities that I now use in my own work and that I pass along to my own lab students.

This was followed by several opportunities to serve as a session chair and the chairperson of several committees in these organizations. This has gained me a subset of very specific organizational skills and allowed me to work with some wonderful colleagues. This work was also very fulfilling as it allowed for the opportunity to overhaul several outdated policies and procedures that we hampering equity, inclusivity, and diversity efforts of the organizations.

I’ve also had the opportunity to contribute to the organization of two scientific conferences which led to the development of a whole host of new professional skills. In hindsight, conferences are a huge amount of work and I would recommend that you wait until you are more than 2 years into your tenure-track job before you take on the task of organizing one!

Most recently, I served on a society’s executive council for three years and this last year I served as the chair for a major section of one of the scientific societies. It was very rewarding, but was more work than I was anticipating, and I’ve therefore made the conscious choice to step back from scientific society service for a few years in order to give myself a break and to allow for alternative perspectives to have a voice.

My take-home messages are:

1) Take the initiative. Sometimes you will be approached to participate, but your contribution will be very welcome if you volunteer through self-nomination.

2) Start small and get your feet wet with some reasonable commitments before diving into duties that are more challenging.

3) Do service that is personally and professionally meaningful for you. I especially liked assignments where I had a fair degree of autonomy and flexibility where I could make a meaningful and long lasting impact on the society.

4) If the timing isn’t right, you should decline opportunities without guilt and take breaks as needed.

5) If you recognize the potential to contribute in others, plant a seed by suggesting that their skills would be valuable and encourage them to get involved.


Doctor Al Digest #25


Poster by Dr. Tristan Long

Some great articles in the past few weeks…

The Feminism of Black Panther vs. Wonder Woman

We are All for Diversity, but… How Faculty hiring committees reproduce whiteness and practical suggestions for how they can change

Addressing issues related to child-care at conferences

Pushing back against the quick turnaround to serve as a reviewer for journal manuscripts

How some relationships are ending because of the #metoo moment and current politics, and it’s not due to the reason you think!

My colleague and I talk about our #Scicomm efforts.