The summer before my graduate program began, I spent every day building fences. Upon telling a coworker my plan to pursue a masters in marine and environmental biology, he asked if I’d be working somewhere like SeaWorld® afterwards. I explained my interests in water quality and public health, but he just stared at me with a blank expression. I came to grips with the fact Justin still probably believes I’m in school to become a dolphin trainer.
Communicating science to non-scientists can be difficult. My parents like to ask me how things in the lab are going and I often avoid concepts that I don’t know to easily break down. My father never took the math portion of the GRE, but he has the Geometry/Trig skills to build a house from the ground up. I lived in one of them. My mother has worked at the same bank since she was nineteen, and has become the financial advisor/accountant for my entire family. No matter how many times she tells me I’ll “catch the cold” if I don’t put a jacket on, I’ll probably never make a financial decision without her advice. My point is my parents aren’t unintelligent. They’re actually quite the contrary. They only lack specific knowledge for science. Despite the skills they’ve gained over their lifetime, their formal education ended at 18. As did the education of many, most even, of my peers I grew up alongside like Justin. People like my parents and Justin aren’t the minority. People like these (people not pursuing an education/career in science) are people just as affected by our findings and concerns as we (the scientists) are. The problem I’m outlining here is not intelligence, but the disconnect between the uninformed and the layperson.
The Louisiana Sea Grant sponsors a competition known as “Coastal Connections,” in attempts to encourage young persons of science to bridge this gap between their research and the general public. Undergraduate and graduate level students compete amongst each other by presenting their research with up to two static slides in the format of a “Three Minute Thesis™.” Three judges evaluate the presentations based on the speaker’s ability to condense their research to a three-minute presentation and convey their projects in a way that is compelling, informative, and easily understood by the public. One Nicholls State University competitor, Richard Grabert, has competed in several presentation style competitions with past research, but claims “this (three minute thesis) has easily been the hardest style of presentation I’ve ever attempted.” This is different than many of the types of presentations scientists will give in that they cannot rely on their audience to understand jargon or make assumptions based on context all the while having only a small amount of time to get their message across. The winners can receive up to five hundred dollars that is to be used at a conference of the winners’ choice. This not only incentivizes students to do well at Coastal Connections, but also gives the students a new perspective on alternative ways of delivering their ideas. Giving a student financial means to attend a conference and a different skill set in communication may also help to be a catalyst for their audience of scientists to include some of these skills in their own presentations.
The Louisiana Sea Grant also publishes these presentations on their own youtube page, which you can watch here:
Coastal Connections Three Minute Thesis
On April 3, Coastal Connections came to Nicholls State University to give the students a shot at presenting their research. Twelve students, three undergraduates and nine graduate level, conveyed the ideas and findings surrounding their projects from coastal conservation and invasive species, to sewage treatment and termite gut biomes. The judges, Dr Bruce Murphy (NSU president), Dr Craig McClain (director of Louisiana University Marine Consortium), and Simone Maloze (director of Restore or Retreat), appeared to be impressed by the efforts of Nicholls students and, as a spectator, I was most certainly inspired. The winners, Alexa Ballinger, Kellyn Lacour-Conant, and Megan Nepshinsky were awarded with five hundred dollars each to pursue whichever upcoming conference they choose. After the competition, Ballinger said “Im just happy to have an opportunity to imprint my passion for wildlife on others.” Personally, I believe that to be the underlying importance of this competition. Not specifically wildlife, but being able to “imprint” an audience, especially a non-specific audience, with the aspects of science that we believe are important.
When sharing findings with the public, scientists may often be received with apathy or ignored entirely by some; however, I think many people would be interested had they only had a thesaurus of scientific jargon on hand and a lot of extra time to kill. Despite their curiosity, most people lack the formal education and life experiences to comprehend what scientists perceive as rudimentary. People in science/technology/engineering/mathematics related careers often express their work with the assumption that only their colleagues need know the contents. Coastal Connections provided Nicholls students with a platform as well as a new perspective on how they choose to communicate. These students now have the opportunity, and maybe the responsibility, to disseminate their information much more efficiently to a broader demographic. Since the industrial revolution, scientific and technological efforts have increased and yielded at an exponential rate all while remaining in the hands and the minds of the few. The laypersons and experts. But what could science and technology achieve with the understanding, input, and cooperation of the majority?