Sharing Science: Faculty Translate Knowledge through Conversation, Teaching and Entertainment

Spring 2016 - Three professors in Mathematical and Physical Sciences are part of a growing movement to bring science directly to the public.

About half of all scientists in the United States engage in some type of public outreach, studies show. Their reasons for doing so include inspiring the next generation of scientists, informing public policy and competing for public funds. For instance, the National Science Foundation, a top science funding agency, encourages grant recipients to share their research findings with the public.

Chemistry professor Jared Shaw, who runs the monthly Science Café, said his goal is “to demystify what goes on in research.” The Science Café is not a lecture, but rather an event designed to spark conversations between scientists and the public. “When people see the research, they feel like they are part of it,” Shaw said. Some of the most popular topics to date have been beneficial bacteria in breast milk, medical marijuana and the physics of time.

Shaw primarily funds the Science Café through a National Science Foundation Early Career Development grant (renewed in 2014). “The café is an interesting and easy to understand outreach  activity,” he said.

Science communication can take many forms, and some university scholars speak directly to the public through television and films. Physics professor Manuel Calderon de la Barca Sanchez is a primary science adviser on the film Secrets of the Universe, a 3-D IMAX feature about the Large Hadron Collider and particle physics. “This story will be available all over the world, where it will make a real impact on today’s youth,” he said. 

Climate scientist Tessa Hill, an associate professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, focuses on public education and outreach through social media and interviews with journalists. Hill was recently awarded a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the U.S. government’s highest award for scientists and engineers in the early stages of their research careers. The award criteria include a commitment to service through leadership, public education or community outreach. 

“I do research on something that has societal consequences and I have an obligation to get the information out,” said Hill. “And at a very fundamental level, everything I do is paid for by the taxpayers and really needs to see the light of day.”

The ability to communicate effectively is a key skill in any science career. Although many scholars can speak to their peers, translating research into plain language that can be read or watched by the public takes practice. Hill pursued communication training from scientific societies such as the American Association for the Advancement for Science, but she said teaching a large lecture course was her most valuable experience.

“When you have to get up every day and stand in front of an auditorium of 200 students who are not science majors, you start to figure out how to communicate science,” she said.

— Becky Oskin