6 Speaking Tips for Scientists and Engineers(editor’s note: Melissa Marshall, featured in this article, recently spoke to Mass General clinicians about how to effectively present scientific work. We were so impressed by her talk that we wanted to introduce her to our readers)
Looking for a great book for the young scientist in your life? The long list of 2018 AAAS/Subaru SB&F (Science Books and Films) Prize winners for Excellence in Science Books has been released. Prizes are awarded each year in the following categories:
Did you know that October is Health Literacy month?
As part of this month-long focus on clear and understandable health information, the Massachusetts General Hospital Blum Center recently hosted a talk by Stacy Robison, MPH, MPCHES, co-founder of CommunicateHealth—a health education and communication firm—on the issues of health literacy in the digital age and how to create accessible content for adults with limited health literacy skills.
Considering that 72 percent of internet users looked up health information online in the last year, yet half of Americans read at an 8th grade level or below, there’s a clear need for digital health materials that all readers can understand, Robison said.
Robison also emphasized that we can’t write off low health literacy as a health disparity with no feasible solution — individuals in the healthcare field can play a role in addressing the issue by creating comprehensible tools and resources.
She provided the following three strategies for making easier to use materials:
Create content that’s relevant and actionable: Put the most important information first and prioritize behaviors. For example, a webpage titled, “How to prevent asthma at home” is more actionable and appealing to readers than a webpage called “About asthma.”
Display content clearly: Use bullets and short lists (like this one!), and avoid paragraphs with more than three lines of text. Robison’s research has shown that individuals with low literacy levels tend to skip over large chunks of text.
Engage users: Take advantage of the capabilities of digital platforms to create content that’s interactive and shareable, and that uses videos or graphics to illustrate a point when appropriate.
What does this mean for the medical and scientific research community? We here at the Mass General Research Institute are big supporters of good science communication and see many overlaps in the principles of health literacy and the principles of science communication.
Our goal is to provide you with the essentials of a research study in short, easy to digest posts. We try to set the context to help you understand what the research means, and put the big takeaway at the top of the post. We also use different formats such as “five things to know” lists and Q&A to make the information easier on the eyes.
Let us know how we’re doing! What could we do better? What science resources do you look to?
Last Wednesday the Mass General Research Institute hosted The Art of Talking Science: Rise of the Machines at the Russell Museum at Massachusetts General Hospital.
As part HUBweek’s weeklong festival, this science communication competition challenged researchers focused on artificial intelligence, machine learning and digital health to present their science in four minutes or less. Each contestant received feedback from a panel of celebrity judges and, at the end, one presenter was crowned the winner.
Here’s a look back at some of the highlights from the afternoon:
Sue Slaugenhaupt, PhD, Scientific Director of the Research Institute, gave an introduction on the importance of communicating science.
Meet the Judges
Dr. Slaugenhaupt also introduced our panel of judges who each spoke for a few minutes about what science communicating means to them.
Our amazing judges, were (from left): Ike Swetlitz, Reporter for STAT News, Rich Hayes, Creative Director/Deputy Director of Communications for the Union of Concerned Scientists, Carey Goldberg, Editor for the WBUR CommonHealth Blog, and Christine Reich, PhD, Vice President of Exhibit Development and Conservation at the Museum of Science, Boston.
Then judge Christine Reich gave a keynote presentation discussing how the Museum of Science empowers their guests through science communication.
After Dr. Reich’s fascinating presentation, the competition began!
Justin Baker, MD, PhD, went first with his presentation, Exploring the Human-Human Interface. Dr. Baker is Scientific Director at the Institute for Technology in Psychiatry and an Assistant Psychiatrist at McLean Hospital.
Kamal Jethwani, MD, MPH, Senior Director of Connected Health Innovation, Partners Connected Health, then gave a slideless presentation entitled, Want to Lose 5 Lbs Fast? Artificial Intelligence Holds the Key.
Our third presenter was Jacob Dal-Bianco, MD, who spoke about preventing rheumatic heart disease. Dr. Dal-Bianco is a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
David Gow, PhD, of the Cognitive/Behavioral Neurology Group at Massachusetts General Hospital, then gave his presentation, Using Machine Learning to Help the Brain Understand Itself.
Up next was Lisa Gualtieri, PhD, ScM, who discussed a lending library for fitness trackers. Dr. Gualtieri is the founder of Recycle Health, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, and the Director of the Digital Health Communication Certificate Program.
Closing out the program was Roland Carlstead, PhD, of the Developmental Biology Research Program at McLean Hospital. Dr. Carlstead discussed whether treatment works and if the placebo effect is real.
After much deliberation, the judges named Justin Baker as the winner.
Thank you to all our contestants and the judges for their insightful feedback and support of science communication!
Here at the Mass General Research Institute, we live and breathe science news every day.
We’re eager to find out what’s happening in the research labs, centers and institutes at Massachusetts General Hospital (and with biomedical science in general), and share what we’ve learned on our blog and website.
But what about the general public? Do they share the same interest in science?
A recent Pew Research Survey of 4,000 adults aged 18 and over found that only 17 percent of respondents were “active consumers” of science news. Active consumers were defined as those who get science news several times a week, either by chancing across it or by actively seeking it out.
Details of the Study
The study found that general news outlets are the most common sources of science stories, though respondents indicated that they tend to view information from niche sources such as scientific institutions, museums, documentaries and science-specific magazines as more accurate.
More than 80 percent of those who follow science news cited curiosity as their prime motivating factor. Other reasons cited by respondents for following science news was that the information helps them make decisions in their everyday lives, and that they enjoy talking about science with others.
There is also a family connection—many of the respondents who were parents said that they sought out science news due to the activities and interests of their children.
When it comes to the coverage of science itself, some respondents criticized science journalists for too much emphasis on “gee-whiz” writing that doesn’t do enough to explain the relevance of the science for the average person, or assess the quality of the research.
Some 44% of survey respondents said it was a “big problem” that the public doesn’t know enough about science to understand research findings in the news. A similar number of respondents said that with so many studies being published, it can be difficult to distinguish between high and low quality work.
Finding Meaning in the Results
So what does that mean for researchers and the research communications team at Massachusetts General Hospital?
We have an opportunity to be a trusted and accessible voice for science. We can take a hard look at the way we communicate our findings to see if we are using too much jargon, failing to explain key concepts or not taking the time to explain how our work could impact human health down the road—even if the potential benefits are a long way off.
In an era where hot button issues such as climate change and childhood vaccinations have scientists facing an increasing level of scrutiny, it’s important that we continuously work on improving our communication skills.
Communicating Science at Mass General
Through the Office of the Scientific Director, the Mass General Research Institute has launched several programs designed to improve the way our researchers talk about science.
We have organized communicating science competitions at HUBweek and the Cambridge Science Festival, and hosted workshops on science communication in conjunction with the Alan Alda Center For Science Communication.
We also share tips on communicating science on our Facebook and Twitter pages. Here are a few resources to get you started:
Science is a complex and ever-changing field. Each new advance, from personalized medicine to CRISPR gene editing, creates a new set of terminology that might make perfect sense to the research community, but is totally unknown to the general public.
By challenging ourselves to be better communicators, we can advocate for the importance of medical research and its potential to improve the lives of patients, both here at Mass General and across the globe.
The Research Institute:
Saving Lives Through Science
The Massachusetts General Hospital Research Institute is the largest hospital-based research program in the United States, with a community of over 10,000 people working across more than 30 institutes, centers and departments.Our researchers work side-by-side with physicians to pioneer the latest scientific advancements for curing disease and healing patients in Boston, across the United States and around the world.To learn more about the Research Institute, please visit our website.
Good science communication skills can be just as helpful when you are communicating with colleagues and journal editors as they are when you’re speaking to the public.
Here are nine helpful tips on writing journal articles by Anne Marie Weber-Main, PhD, and Anne Joseph, MD, MPH, from the University of Minnesota. You can find the complete presentation here.
Clearly state the importance of your findings. What gap in knowledge did you address? What challenges did you overcome?
Lead with your results, and then follow with explanatory details
Provide rationale for your study design and methods if relevant to the results
Include definitions of terms when appropriate
Present information in a logical order, not necessarily a chronological one
Use tables and figures for clarity and brevity
Be consistent with terminology (For example, use either “aggression” or “aggressive behavior,” but not switch back and forth between the two)
Similarly, using parallel sentence structure can be helpful when comparing methodology and results between data sets (helps the reader understand the similarities and differences when information is presented in a consistent way)
Make specific suggestions for how future research could expand upon your results
Gene Kinney, PhD, president and CEO of Prothena, a global biotechnology company, published a great article in Xconomy earlier this year about the importance of communicating science.
He says researchers need be strategic about how they talk about their work in order to enhance the public’s understanding of science and its impact on society. Using jargon-free language and developing a compelling narrative can help engage an audience and explain the science.
But Kinney acknowledges this is easier said than done. A little thing called the “curse of knowledge” can hurt a scientist’s ability to communicate with those who don’t share their baseline of expertise. Researchers need to cope with the curse and understand that buzzwords within their given field like “novel target” and “in vitro” hold little to no meaning to outsiders. Kinney emphasizes the importance of overcoming this bias and shifting assumptions about an audience’s knowledge base in order to improve scientific literacy.
Overall, scientists must begin to see themselves not only as researchers but also as communicators.
If you’re confused whether coconut oil is good or bad for you or whether alcohol will lengthen or shorten your life, you’re not alone. With so many nutrition studies receiving coverage in the news, it’s often difficult to discern truth from hyperbole.
A great article published today in the Washington Post discusses how we shouldn’t make generalizations based on the results from many nutrition science studies. The author explained it nicely when she said:
“The coffee studies in the news last week were what scientists know as observational studies. In these studies, researchers followed coffee drinkers and non-coffee drinkers and monitored when and how they died. The problem is, when you go about searching for differences between any two groups, you’re going to find them. ‘That doesn’t prove that coffee is providing the benefit,’ said David Ludwig, professor of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health. For example, people who drink coffee regularly might have higher incomes, drink fewer sugary beverages, or lead more active lifestyles. Observational studies like these are useful for identifying interesting trends, but they do not demonstrate cause and effect.”
Nutrition is a particularly difficult topic for the media to cover. One nutrition study on its own likely won’t provide newsworthy, headline-grabbing content. “Truth can only emerge from many different studies with many different methods,” said Ludwig.
So how can you determine whether or not to believe a news story? Among other suggestions, the author warns to be wary of claims that cutting any given food from our diets will cure us. They sound too good to be true because they are.
The Mass General Research Institute believes in the important role communication plays in a researcher’s ability to connect with a wide audience. As part of our commitment to help our researchers better communicate their science, we have previously worked with the Alan Alda Center For Communicating Science to teach Mass General researchers how to distill their message.
Now the man who helped establish the center has published a new book on the topic. Alan Alda’s book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, talks about communication and miscommunication between scientists and civilians, explains why empathy is crucial to successful science conversations, and describes Alda’s work at the center.
“When patients can’t relate to their doctors and don’t follow their orders, when engineers can’t convince a town that the dam could break, when a parent can’t win the trust of a child to warn her off a lethal drug. They can all be headed for a serious ending,” says Alda.
So many questions run through a patients mind when they’re diagnosed with cancer. Now two Mass General doctors from the Cancer Center and the Division of Palliative Care are hoping to help answer those questions using clear and simple language.
David Ryan, an oncologist, and Vicki Jackson, a palliative care physician, have put together a comprehensive, user-friendly guide to coping and living with cancer, modeled after the iconic pregnancy handbook What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Their finished work, called Livingwith Cancer, was published earlier this month.
“People needed a guide to how to take care of their cancer that was practical and explained all the doctor speak in lay terms,” Ryan told Boston Magazine. “Vicki and I always had a tendency to tell our patients stories—to say, ‘Well, I had a patient just like you.’ That technique we put into the book, and I think it allows us to explain the difficult medical situations in a much more friendly fashion.”
Avoiding scientific jargon is essential for communicating science and is especially important when it comes to communicating health information to patients. A serious diagnosis, such as cancer, can be traumatic for patients – resources like this book can help guide patients along the path to treatment.