Lab Blogs

Learning to communicate science effectively — training with COMPASS

This past week ACS lab members Bryant DeRoy, Kate Field, and I had the privilege of attending a science communication workshop hosted by COMPASS, an NGO dedicated to training scientists to effectively translate their work to policy makers, media, and the public. COMPASS formed in response to a very real need; even ten short years ago, many scientists were questioning if they should communicate their work outside of the academy. Luckily for evidence-based decision making, many scientists now consider science communication a key skill, and now want to know how to most effectively communicate.

Our training on how to effectively communicate was largely centred around a tool called a “message box”. This brilliant aid was developed by Nancy Baron in her book, Escape from the Ivory Tower, to translate our usual scientific format of sharing results (spoiler alert: we actually don’t even share our results until you have demonstrated your worthiness by committing to read the first 75% of our manuscript) into a format that the rest of world intuitively grasps and cares about (what did we actually find out and why should anyone besides our mothers, who are blood-bound, and our advisors, who are duty-bound, care?).

Message box developed by Nancy Baron
Message box developed by Nancy Baron

This very simple tool helps scientists distill research in any discipline into the specific issue, the problem, the solution, the benefits, and perhaps most importantly, the so what? In my case, it took me many, many iterations of the message box to wade through the nitty gritty details of modelling approaches in an upcoming paper and the hand wringing of our limitations, but eventually I was able to simply communicate “what did I learn and why does it matter?”

It turns out that writing out our message boxes (even all fourteen drafts) was the easy part of the training. Next, we got put through the paces by participating journalists in print, radio, and TV formats who ran through mock interviews about our research. This gave us the exceptionally valuable opportunity to translate the roadmap of what I wanted to say, as I carefully laid out in my message box, into a dynamic conversation with media experts. We certainly need to invest in a lot more practice to make it look effortless, but our whole cohort improved dramatically with this focused training in just two short days.

This training opportunity was made possible the foresight and generosity of the Willowgrove Foundation, for which I am exceptionally grateful. This investment greatly benefited all ACS lab participants as we gained new skills that we will continue to build upon throughout our scientific careers.


By Christina Service, PhD Candidate