Stem cells in 60 seconds: Quick lessons in communicating science

Author: Angela C. H. McDonald, 12/23/13
Ursula Nosi's (Cox lab) plasticine model of a blastocyst

Ursula Nosi’s (Cox lab) plasticine model of a blastocyst

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Last Friday afternoon, I raced over to a University of Toronto neighbourhood pub for the annual Ontario Stem Cell Initiative (OSCI) holiday party. This year, OSCI decided to change up the usual scientific poster session and created a science communication competition — right up my alley.

The competition was called “Stem Cells in Sixty Seconds” and the task was ‘simple’: describe your stem cell science to a panel of judges using plain language in one minute or less. Sounds easy doesn’t it? Well, if you are a scientist and have tried to tell your friends or parents what it is that you actually do, you know that this task is not as easy as it sounds.

If we as scientists can’t communicate our scientific findings, how can we expect patients, clinicians, and policymakers to keep up with us?

The problem is that most young scientists do not receive any formal training on communicating their science. In my five years as a PhD student, I have not been required to take one seminar or course on this topic. Lucky for me, I have taken advantage of opportunities out there to hone my communication skills, including writing for this blog. But shouldn’t all scientists have the opportunity to develop their communication skills, or even be required to do so?

Pete Tonge's 'skin cells'

Pete Tonge’s ‘skin cells’

The ‘Stem Cells in Sixty Seconds’ competition provided a fun environment for trainees to practice communicating and as it turns out, we’ve got some great communicators in our Canadian stem cell community. Participants wrote poems and used an array of props including a plasticine embryo, a science-themed beach ball and even pictures of celebrities to assist their pitching. For example, Pete Tonge from the Nagy lab used his balloon animal-making skills while describing the process of induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) reprogramming. Cells began as simple, long balloons representing skin cells that can be folded (or reprogrammed) to create different shapes (or mature cell types such as neurons).

At the end of the competition, the panel of judges, which included Ivan Semeniuk, science reporter for the Globe and Mail, gave us all a couple of key pieces of advice on communication:

  1. Keep jargon out (does your grandma know what a microRNA or progenitor cell is? I don’t think so.)
  2. Explain to your audience what is most important and why they should care (If you work on stem cell strategies for the treatment of type I diabetes, you should tell your audience that there is currently no cure and there are about a million Canadians who suffer from this condition that are waiting for us to find one!)

The competition winner, Brian Ballios, an MD/PhD student in the van der Kooy lab met both of these criteria. Brian stepped onto the stage and began snapping his fingers at a rate of one snap every five seconds while explaining that in Canada, every five seconds someone goes blind. This ‘hook’ got everyone’s attention and we all listened to Brian’s plans to use retinal stem cells to restore vision.

The presence of a lively audience packed into the pub on a Friday evening speaks to the growing interest in science communication among trainees. The event received such a great response that I had to whip out my laptop right in the pub to write this post!

I hope that this becomes an annual OSCI event and I challenge scientists across the country to host events to encourage the next generation to get involved in science communication. For those readers that aren’t scientists, your challenge is to hold us to a higher communication bar. Ask us questions, and if you don’t understand our response know that it’s not you, it’s us and make us try again.

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Angela C. H. McDonald

Angela C. H. McDonald

PhD candidate at Hospital for Sick Children
Angela is a PhD student in the Stem Cell and Developmental Biology program at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. She is currently utilizing pluripotent stem cells to understand the genetic regulation of endoderm development. As an avid supporter of public science education, she co-founded the high school outreach initiative StemCellTalks sits on numerous public education committees including the International Society for Stem Cell Research Public Education Committee and the Stem Cell Network Public Outreach Committee.
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