ComSciCon: the virtual experience


Parinaz Fathi

ComSciCon is a competitive three-day science communication workshop created by graduate students for graduate students. The goal of this workshop is to help graduate students build science communication skills to effectively communicate their work with people across a variety of fields, as well as with the public. This year, the conference took place virtually. 

A few weeks before the conference officially began, all attendees participated in a Write-a-Thon. For this, we had to write a 600-800-word original piece of scientific writing, along with a freelance pitch for the article. The idea was to take something such as your research or a scientific concept and make it accessible to a target audience of your choice.

This was a very new endeavor for me since I had limited previous experience with this form of scientific writing, and had never written a pitch before. Since I’ve done a lot of work on 3D printing, I ended up writing my piece about the biomedical applications of 3D printing, especially in the age of COVID-19. Through providing and receiving peer feedback, we were able to improve our work (and I was blown away by the really cool articles some of my peers wrote! It made me realize that if a piece is well-written, it can grab the reader’s attention, even if the reader wasn’t necessarily interested in the topic before).

We also received expert feedback on our articles during the conference. Based on the feedback I received, I ended up completely restructuring the piece I had written, and tried to focus on grabbing the reader’s attention early in the piece. This experience also made me more aware of the fine line between jargon and common knowledge.

As scientists, it’s important for us to avoid using jargon when communicating with the public. When we spend most of our time around other scientists, it’s sometimes difficult to step back and make sure the language we use is accessible to a broader audience.   

The conference itself consisted of a variety of workshops and panels on topics such as “Science Communication in the Era of COVID-19”, “Storytelling with Data”, “Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility”, “Creative Writing”, “Zines, Comics, and GIFs”, and many others.

One workshop that I especially enjoyed was the “Theater+Improv” workshop led by Deanna Montgomery. In this workshop, we were divided into breakout rooms, each with a few attendees. The other attendees in the room were to provide us with a random topic (for example, “the effect of using orange notebooks on academic performance of elementary school students”), and then we had to pretend to be an expert on that subject for a few minutes, improvising the end of a presentation on the topic and answering “audience” questions. This was a really fun workshop because it pushed us to think on our feet, the same way we need to when answering audience questions at the end of a conference presentation. Unlike actual conference presentations though, the structure of this workshop created a low-pressure environment, allowing attendees to share laughter and encouragement.

As scientists, we are expected to feel comfortable delivering presentations to large audiences in scientific settings. That level of comfort typically comes from practicing with low-stakes presentations on our work, such as in lab meetings. It was nice to step back from our specific research topics in this workshop and actually practice the “delivery method” (ex. speaking with confidence, making eye contact with the virtual audience members, and avoiding filler words). 

Another workshop that really stood out to me was the workshop on BiteScis. BiteScis, which was originally conceived by attendees of ComSciCon, are small lessons that are written based on current research in biology, chemistry, or physics. BiteScis are meant to overlap with education standards and be integrated with regular lessons by school teachers. In this workshop, we were tasked with identifying the specific biology, chemistry, or physics educational standards to which our research could be linked, and how information about the research could be integrated into a BiteScis lesson plan. This reminded me of the sections in my childhood textbooks that provided real-world examples or fun facts to keep us engaged with the material, and it was exciting to think about how we as scientists can play a role in demonstrating the real-world applications of concepts that students are learning in school.   

Overall, participating in ComSciCon was a really positive experience, and I would highly recommend that any interested graduate students apply. Although I had previous STEM outreach experience by planning and volunteering for many outreach events for K-12 students, ComSciCon exposed me to a world of other ways of doing science communication. It also provided attendees with opportunities to network and learn from each other’s science communication efforts. In this day and age where COVID has made in-person STEM outreach events impractical, it’s really nice to know that there are many impactful and diverse forms of science communication that can be done from home.