Armin Mortazavi

So You Want To SciComm?

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Alex Chattwood, Editor, Communications, Education & Outreach

People are interested in science communication for all kinds of reasons. Me, I’ve used science communication to escape the humdrum of the lab, to occupy myself when out of work, and as an integral part of my current career in science education.

As with anything new, I struggled at first to find opportunities. Over time, this has given way to an overwhelming sense of just how much is out there. In this post, I want to give people interested in science communication some resources and guidance to help kickstart their own journey into this wonderful world.

“I’m all in! Where’s the credit card?”

You don’t need a qualification to become a science communicator, but it helps. Several universities—like Guelph and Queen’s in Ontario and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia—offer science communication courses as part of larger undergraduate programs. Only Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, offers a program focussed solely on the theory and practice of communicating science. During this “intense 12-month experience” students attend lectures, participate in field trips, write a research paper and spend eight weeks doing an internship. As with any university degree, you can expect to pay for the privilege. For the Laurentian Master’s degree in Science Communication, you’re looking at around $14,000.

If you want to invest in your career but don’t have 12 months to do it then a Beakerhead Science Communicator program might be for you. What began as a two-week immersive, deep-dive in Banff, Alberta, has developed into a nationwide effort with weekend, one-, and two-week options. While program fees differ based on location and duration, you can expect to pay roughly $500 per day (scholarships are available). As a member of the Banff 2015 cohort, I can tell you that this program was not only a blast, it had a lasting impact on my career and exposed me to one of the best science communicator networks in Canada. Founders Mary-Ann Moser and Jay Ingram will be joined by Stanford professor Thomas Hayden for a one-day science storytelling workshop at the SWCC conference in Vancouver on 13 April. Workshops in Banff, Churchill, Manitoba, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, are also scheduled for 2018.

“I know science, how do I communicate?”

If you are a scientist based at a university, then you likely aren’t the only person interested in science communication at work. Chances are there is a group of like-minded folks at your institution that are already putting on events or creating resources that you can make use of, like ScWRL at the University of British Columbia.

If you are an off-campus scientist, there are a number of organizations that will come to your workplace to run professional development workshops for a fee. SciCATs and LitScientist are two new Vancouver-based examples. The added bonus with SciCATs is that all training materials are freely available to download and remix as you see fit. For a neat variation on this theme, consider Science Through Story, a collaboration between Pixar Studios and University of California Berkeley PhD candidate, Sara ElShafie.

If coaching/training isn’t your thing and you believe that practice makes perfect, then there are an increasing number of events that encourage scientists to step out of the lab and onto the stage. Story Collider, Pint of Science and Nerd Nite are three large multi-city examples, but for people living in larger cities, it might be a good idea to start out with a local version. In Vancouver, Anecdotal Evidence is one excellent gateway to the stage. Heck, even Toastmasters would be a good start and there are 1000+ clubs across Canada.

“I dabble in scicomm but I want to do more”

So, you’ve been to a few workshops or braved talking to a non-science audience: Now what? My advice would be to specialize. Explore ways in which you can find your niche within the scicomm world.

If you have some experience and want to practice science writing in Canada, look no further than Science Borealis! Coached by editors and supported by a great team of fellow science communicators, volunteer contributors learn the craft of pitching, writing and editing online content. Openings on the subject co-editor team appear regularly and can be found here. If science writing appeals to you but you don’t yet feel qualified, Science Borealis recently launched “The New Science Communicator Programs.” For a small fee, university students can work with mentors at Science Borealis to publish a blog post, developing all the skills required to navigate the editorial cycle along the way.

For those looking at “diverse and unexpected approaches to communicating science”, scroll through Raymond Nakamura and Katrina Wong’s Borealis Blog stream on multimedia. There you will find information on podcasts, video, zines, illustrations and more. Then apply your new-found skills at mashup events that blend science communication with the arts. Science Slam is a new initiative trying to take this idea national, but there are more established local outfits that have been around for a while. In Vancouver, check out the excellent Curiosity Collider.

“I want to try scicomm but I can’t afford to”

For those who want to dip their toes into scicomm without spending any money, consider a volunteer position with a science-promoting organization. There are science centres in every province and territory across Canada and many more non-profit science outreach organizations operating at both national (e.g., Let’s Talk Science, Actua) and local levels (for a list, the NSERC Promoscience recipients are a good place to start). Most of these organizations will offer on-the-job training that teaches you how to put the needs and interests of your audience (mostly children) front-and-centre.

From my volunteer experiences at science centres, I would suggest that no other item on this list will have such a profound impact on how you view good science communication. Children will not hesitate to walk away from you if they are bored. But, they will bombard you with questions and talk with you for hours if you manage to capture and hold their interest. That it’s free, well, that’s just a bonus.

There are science communication opportunities in Canada to fit all personalities and budgets. Follow the links in this article, pick one or two that suit you, and prepare yourself to meet some of the most creative, talented and friendly folks in Canadian science storytelling.


Feature image: Science Cartoonist, Armin Mortazavi, speaking at March for Science in Vancouver, 22 April 2017. Image used with permission.

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