The importance of effective communication
At nearly every gathering of family or new friends, someone asks me, “What do you do?” to which I promptly reply that I’m a chemistry grad student at UC Berkeley. Sometimes this is met with a satisfactory nod, but more often than not it is followed by, “So…what do you actually do?”. My next response is something I’m still working on and slowly improving, but the first few attempts were downright awful. Explaining complex ideas in straightforward terms is not an easy task, and this is exactly the basis of the University of California Grad Slam competition.
Regardless of career path, science communication is an essential skill for every scientist. A day in the life of a scientist can include writing papers, reports, or funding proposals, giving talks to peers, interdisciplinary groups, or management, and teaching future scientists or mentoring employees. Scientists must be able to effectively communicate the significance of their results to a diverse range of audiences and in a variety of ways. Mastering this skill can mean a more coherent paper is produced, a job is secured, or funding is obtained; for these reasons alone, every scientist should recognize the importance of communication.
Beyond the benefits to scientists themselves, the societal impact of effective science communication can be even greater. By sharing their knowledge and discoveries with the general public, scientists can help enhance scientific literacy. This can prompt the public to make more informed decisions on how to address pressing global issues. It can also build public trust in science, which can further promote educated decision-making, and lead to an understanding of the significance of basic scientific research.
Scientists are by no means alone in this journey of enhancing the public’s trust in facts and reason. Journalists, historians, social workers—all experts who use fact-based research in their work—need to be able to convey their work compellingly to a broad audience.
The UC Grad Slam offers an opportunity for graduate students to build the communication skills they need to explain their research to the general public using accessible language. Participants learn how to demonstrate the big picture of their research in a clear and captivating way. They spend every day focusing on the minutiae of their work, becoming experts on one small part of a specific sub-discipline of a particular field. Being able to step back and explain not only what they do but also why and to what impact poses a significant communication hurdle.
The 2017 UC Berkeley Grad Slam began with applicants submitting three-minute video presentations that a panel of judges used to narrow the candidates down to eight semi-finalists. These eight graduate students will present live to judges and an audience on April 5th, delivering engaging, concise talks in three minutes or less, a timeframe that leaves no room for unnecessary detail. Similarly, graduate students compete at the nine other UC campuses, and the top finalist from each campus will advance to the UC-wide final event on May 4th.
The competition began in 2015, making this year the third annual event. It is a competitive speaking event, where the descriptor “competitive” is very appropriate—the contest is intense and there is a lot to gain. Rewards of $750, $1,000, and $3,000 will be given to the top three Berkeley finalists, while the top three winners at the UC-wide event will receive $1,000, $3,000, and $6,000.
Money is not the only motivator. Previous winners can attest to the post-competition opportunities presented to them and to the successes that they attribute to being better science communicators. After her Grad Slam win, Berkeley’s 2015 finalist Alexis Shusterman was given the opportunity to share her research on The Conversation, an independent, online magazine that sources their news from the academic and research community. This directly led to a blog post on her work by the environmental news outlet Grist. In the last two years, Shusterman has been invited to attend the annual ComSciCon conference at Harvard and MIT, received the Outstanding Student Paper Award at the 2016 American Geophysical Union meeting, and won another three-minute speaking competition, the Climate Impacts category of the 2016 UC Carbon Slam.
The 2016 Berkeley finalist Kelsey Sakimoto found that the more senior a researcher becomes, the more their job will include “describing [their] work to non-scientists, and certainly non-specialists”. Grad Slam was the perfect opportunity to practice this skill, and for Sakimoto, “good things followed” his success in the competition. He is now a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard engaged in interdisciplinary research that can only benefit from his ability to effectively communicate his research to non-specialists.
Our 2017 UC Berkeley semi-finalists are busy preparing for the upcoming preliminary competition. Their impressions of the competition so far showcase the effectiveness of the UC Grad Slam at challenging graduate students to enhance their communication skills. Stay tuned to find out who wins the Berkeley competition, or better yet, attend the event yourself! Head to 309 Sproul Hall from 3:00–5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 5th to witness the competition in action. Check out your 2017 semi-finalists below!
2017 UC Berkeley Grad Slam Semi-Finalists
For the finalists
Grad Slammers, looking for some advice from previous winners? This is what Alexis and Kelsey recommend.
Alexis Shusterman, 2015 Berkeley winner:
“Avoid ‘performing intelligence’, i.e., using the jargon of your field—everyone already assumes you’re intelligent and qualified.”
“Brag a little! Emphasize all the hard work you personally have done and don’t overly disclaim the results (e.g., ‘I discovered that’ rather than ‘It has been preliminarily indicated that’).”
Kelsey Sakimoto, 2016 Berkeley winner:
“Don’t shy away from the nerdy details. A balance must be struck between the overly technical and the insultingly simple presentation of your research.”
Featured image credit: UC Berkeley Graduate Division, used with permission.