Science Gong Show: Communicating Science

By Matthew Davidson

A researcher stands in front of a crowd of 60, beer in hand, ready to present her work.

[Super technical-sounding jargon]

*CLANG*   *CLANG*  *CLANG*

[Somewhat less technical sounding jargon]

*Clang*  *Clang*

[Better, understandable explanation of her research]

*CHEERS*

WELCOME TO THE GONG SHOW

To many people outside of the lab, scientists might as well be aliens. People are always being told “scientists say we should do this” or “scientists say we shouldn’t do that.” It is easy to drown in all this advice when it is being handed down by some nebulous “scientists.” Our goal is to introduce community members to scientists so the next time people hear “yeah, well scientists are always telling us things” they can respond “no! I just met this scientist! They are doing really cool work!”

Dr. Michelle Mellenthin earned our first Gong of the afternoon!

One reason it is hard for scientists to share our research with non-scientists is that we often use highly technical language. This helps others in our field know exactly what we are talking about, but that same language can make our work opaque to the outside world. Historically, scientists haven’t worried too much about this, but many of us are starting to realize that our work will have very little positive impact unless we can communicate it to our audience. Despite how it seems, most people have a consistently positive view of scientists and want to hear about our research. They don’t want us to dumb down our research; they just want us to explain it in ways that make sense to someone who hasn’t spent the last decade immersed in our specific lab.

Enter the Science Gong Show. Drawing on events like 3 Minute Thesis and taking narrative cues from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, we congregate at a local brewery and present our work to non-scientists. Presenters have three minutes to tell the audience about their research and how it impacts them. But there is a twist: if the presenter uses too much jargon or gets too technical, the audience is equipped with cowbells to “gong” them. Fortunately, unlike the show, “gonged” presenters aren’t dragged off the stage by a cartoonishly large hook. Instead, the speaker gets an opportunity to backtrack and explain what they mean. With practice, presenters can explain their highly technical work in simple and interesting ways.

CU Denver public health professor Lee Newman brought props to demonstrate how he helped Guatemalan sugarcane workers.

For many new speakers, this is a jarring experience. When we talk to people in our field, we focus on the technical aspects and usually don’t get interrupted. This can be nice, but we rarely get a chance to talk about the exciting outcomes of our work to an enthusiastic crowd. Many of our speakers have later told us how it made them able to present at scientific conferences with more confidence and clarity.

Running the Gong Show, I’ve learned just how many different kinds of scientists there are out there and that not all scientists fall under the STEM umbrella. At a recent event, a professor of public health talked about his trip to Guatemala to help relieve kidney disease among sugarcane farmers. Even further from the STEM definition, next month we will have a historian come to talk about water rights in the Colorado River basin. Once you start looking at all the different work people are doing, it’s easy to see how many people are doing scientific work: gathering data, testing hypotheses, and making theories. When the audience can see science in their work, they connect to what we are doing and become advocates for science. After all, we have all been scientists at one point or another in our lives [1].

The Author (left) introduces the mayor of Nederland, Kris Larsen (Right),to talk about the Mars Rover.

We plan to take Science Gong Show on the road soon. If you are interested in hosting a Gong Show in your city and want some logistical information, please let me know. Ultimately, our goal is to move out of Denver and visit places that have less contact with scientists to bridge the communication gap there too.

If you are in the Denver area, consider attending the next Gong Show or sign up as a speaker. It will be at Ratio Beerworks at 2 p.m. on August 5. I hope to see you there.

 

 

 

 

Matthew Davidson is a postdoctoral fellow at Assistive Technology Partners. He received his doctorate in bioengineering in 2017 at the University of Colorado, Denver. Dr. Davidson’s current work involves identifying key features in product standards to help people with disabilities find products they can use independently. He is also particularly interested in science policy advising for legislators and science communication to the community. This post first appeared on Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training on June 27, 2018, and is reprinted with permission of the author. http://nihbest.org/phdpostdoc-blog/welcome-to-the-gong-show/