Make the First Move: SciComm advice

Today I listened to a panel of Science Journalists at a COMPASS* science communication event.  There is such a thing as bad science journalism, which has created some distrust and fear on the part of some scientists regarding how their research might be translated for the masses. The panel put together 4 accomplished journalists to hear their perspective and to learn advice for how to make sure interactions with science writers turn out as successful as possible.

The fine print: The following are from my notes and don’t represent everything that was covered. Also, I didn’t write down which journalist said what, so these statements may not represent the experience or opinion of individuals on the panel.Those panelists were:

Moderator: Nancy Baron, COMPASS
Journalists:
Chris Joyce—National Public Radio
Ken Weiss – Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting
Erica Gies – Independent Journalist
Lauren Sommer – KQED/NPR

 

Some keys for communication with journalists:

  •             Be enthusiastic.
  •             Use short sentences and ditch the jargon.
  •             Provide the big picture/Context/Why it matters.
  •             Talk about how you got into it, why you are passionate about it.

A big message from the workshop was that researchers should be proactive in the process of getting their research out to journalists.

Even before contacting someone in the press, do some work ahead of time to be able to concisely discuss the context or rationale for the research, and to be able to do so in everyday language (no jargon). To me this sounds not too different from giving an elevator talk, which we should all be able to do anyway.

A contact email is more likely to succeed in tempting a journalist if it stands out. Make the email title catchy or provocative, not boring. Start with the problem or context before the research result. Provide hooks or links to other big stories (even outside of science).

It’s not just about the research. One thing (especially for radio/TV) is to see the discovery happening. Radio likes the sound of the environment, walking through the marsh. That can mean you shouldn’t wait until the paper is out- within reason- journalists don’t care as much about that, the peer-reviewed manuscript is only part of the story and usually not the most interesting part.

Don’t get too hung up on avoiding press because you are worried about scooping yourself with respect to journal embargoes. Obviously if you have research you think has a good shot for one of those top journals, be careful, but there are definitely ways to talk about your research without violating journal policy. Journalists should be willing to hold a story if an embargo does come into play. The opinion of the panel was that most writers would rather start on the story farther in advance anyway since they will have more time to get the story right. Also, on a hot paper, journalists know you will be fielding interviews from many news outlets, so they like to be able to get in before the crush.

How to help journalists get it right:

  •             Be patient! They are not experts in the field.
  •             If you don’t think they are asking the right questions, you can suggest to them what you think the right questions are.
  •             You can ask them to pause during an interview and recap to make sure they are getting the picture.
  •             A writer is more likely to agree to share a particular tricky part
  •             Analogies are great to help with complex topics.
  •             Provide names for other people they can talk with.

 

To deal with controversial topics, you can give them a heads up of people they will hear from with different view points, why they find your work problematic, and why you don’t think they are right.

For talking about uncertainty in science without killing the story, be prepared by determining limits of how far you are willing to go in terms of confidence in your conclusions. Journalists won’t publish a story if it is so filled with caveats there is no message or story. They would rather talk in bold confident terms (their editors even more so). If there is uncertainty, you can still talk about the stakes of knowing the answer, and why continuing to search for the answer is important.  Don’t lead with your caveats.

Final message:

“Journalists are not your partners, but they can be your tools”

 

*Mark Schwartz says: COMPASS is the group that coordinates Science Communication for (among others) the Leopold Fellows, The Smith Fellows, The Wilburforce Fellows and Liber Ero fellows (i.e., ALL  the major ecology/conservation fellows programs interested in fostering engaged science).

Patricelli Teaching Award

Congrats to Gail, who won the Faculty Teaching Award at UC Davis earlier this year (this comes on the heels of the Mentorship award she received several years ago). There’s a full write-up here. Many of the best undergrads in the lab first approached us for research because they took her Animal Communication course. Well deserved accolades, Gail!

 

Additionally, check out the new lab web page, which includes some other honors for lab members.

Summer 2016 Undergraduate Research Opportunities

I spend most of my time on this blog talking about the ups and downs of the field research we conduct in Wyoming. None of it would be worth the time and effort if it weren’t for the dedication of many great UC Davis undergraduates who have help advance the projects over the years. As in most years, we have new opportunities starting this summer to help collect behavioral data from the videos of lekking sage-grouse that we recorded in March and April. Note that we hope people will continue with us into the fall and beyond! Keep reading for more information.

If interested, please email me at ahkrakauer [at] ucdavis [dot] edu   and I can let you know when the next information sessions will be.

Our lab is conducting field studies near Lander, Wyoming, focused on the behavior of a threatened bird called the greater sage-grouse.  Our work investigates how females choose their mates, the importance skills and responsiveness during courtship interactions, and what factors (social, foraging) go into the decisions males make when courting females. These studies provide general insights into evolutionary biology, animal behavior, and ecology, and also inform conservation efforts. Specific questions may include determining male mating success, characterizing male and female behaviors and responsiveness during courtship, identifying and analyizing courtship sounds, and measuring how males court a robotic female during experimental trials. Most opportunities we are advertising involve collecting data from video.  Most students begin by collecting data to support one of these larger questions, and may move into more independent projects in the future.

see our websites for more information:
http://patricellilab.faculty.ucdavis.edu/gail-patricelli/
http://www.alankrakauer.org/

Answers to a few common questions I’ve received:

“I don’t have any experience- is that OK?”
**That’s fine. Everyone begins with a training set before collecting data, so no experience necessary. All we require is basic computer literacy (e.g. some familiarity with MS Excel), focus, and attention to detail.

“Can I get paid for this?”
**Unfortunately this is a volunteer opportunity, and not paid.  Course credit is available, however, and we can be flexible as to how it is assigned (for example, if you do not want to pay for research units over the summer, we can keep track of the hours and you can apply them to your research hours during the fall).  One (1) research credit is about equal to 5hr/week during a summer session or 3hr/week during a regular quarter. Transcript Notation requires 40 hours.

“How many hours per week do you need?”
**We ask for a commitment of between ~6 and 15 hours per week.  You will need to dedicate between 2 and 3 hours per session. These hours can be any time Storer Hall is open, which is about 7:30AM until 6PM M-F. Please ask if you anticiapte needing to come in outside of these times.

“What if I’m only here for the summer?”
**While we would prefer students who could join the lab for more than one quarter, you are welcome to contact us if you can only dedicate a single quarter (or summer) to research. Our ability to support this type of contribution will depend on project availability and the number of other students interested in joining the lab. Note that if you are interested in developing more independent projects with us, we do ask for more than one quarter of commitment.

“How do you choose among the applicants”
**So far we usually have been fortunate to accept everyone who was interested in working here; hopefully that will be true this year as well. Most of the positions we offer do not require previous experience. Interest in the subject matter, scheduling, and willingness to work for more than one quarter are all plusses.

“I would like to do a practicum/thesis/honors challenge. Can I do this here?”
**Possibly. We have had a number of fantastic students conduct capstone experiences here in the lab, some of which have led to scientific presentations and journal articles. Often students start on the more general projects and get their feet wet in the lab for one or more quarters before starting a more independent project. If we don’t already know you, then you’ll need to talk to Dr. Patricelli about a more advanced project first. We can not always guarantee that we have an appropriate project available.

We’d like to meet with interested students.  At this time we will give you more details about our overall research projects and where you might fit into this.   In the mean time, can you tell us more about yourself (you may have already told me in your initial email but this will help me organize everything).  Thanks!

Name
Phone Number
Email

Year in School
Major
Relevant Courses

Briefly describe any previous research experience

Briefly describe how this would fit into your long-term goals (grad school, etc)

Can you work both Summer Session 1 and 2?

How many hours/week would you want to work this fall?

Are you interested in continuing to work this winter/spring?

Given the choice, are you more interested in:
Evolution/Behavioral Ecology
Conservation Biology/Ecology

Field season underway… without me!

In a previous field season, we dug shallow trenches to prepare for laying microphone cables at Monument Lek.

For most of the past decade, the 2nd week in March would find me fully entrenched (literally) in getting our sage-grouse research projects up and running. Not this year. I took on a winter quarter class at UC Davis, and won’t be joining the rest of the crew at Chicken Camp for another couple of weeks. I’m doing what I can to help Gail and Ryane from here, but so far I’ve missed some excitement in the form of minor vehicle and trailer calamities.

From what I’ve heard- it’s been a weirdly warm winter so far, with the area getting rain (rain!) as often as snow, and no permanent snow cover when they arrived at the field site. The males were already displaying on the leks, and attendance seems pretty good, although it’s hard to know how to interpret numbers.  Does more males relative to same date last year reflect an increase in the population, or that the season has advanced, or both? We should have a better answer for this once we see how the season plays out.

I’ve been teaching Behavioral Ecology in the WFCB department at UC Davis this quarter. I’ve never taught BE before, but the subject is definitely in my wheelhouse, and my past experience with Animal Behavior and Intro to Evolution classes have definitely given me something to work from. Hopefully the 60 students in WFC 141 have learned something this quarter! Now to write that exam!

Undergraduate Research- Past and Future

First off, I want to announce that the Patricelli Lab is seeking undergraduates to participate in our ongoing sage-grouse research. These will be lab positions on campus involving mainly video analysis of grouse behavior on the leks. We are looking for people starting this summer, and will almost certainly have additional openings in the fall. For details, check out the Undergraduate Research page. If interested, contact me! We will have information sessions starting early next week.

Graduation cap featuring sage-grouse "buttprint", Photo courtesy A. Dirksen

Secondly, a big congratulations to our graduating seniors. This spring we had a particularly big cohort of fantastic long-time lab members who have finished up here at UC Davis. Kira, Amy, and Ayala all presented at the Undergraduate Research Conference at Davis this spring, and Ayala and Ciara gave poster presentations at the prestigious Animal Behavior Society meeting in Anchorage, Alaska. Thanks to all of you, and in particular Ayala, Nicole, Amy, Ciara, and Kira for all your hard work! Best of luck in for the future!

UPDATE: Congratulations to Ciara Main for earning an honorable mention in the prestigious poster competition at the ABS meeting. Great work Ciara and Anna Perry for putting together such a good project and following it up with a winning poster and mastery of the topic.