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How taking a public engagement class changed how I think about science


By Julia Schulz

The classes you take during the first two years of your Ph.D. are a big part of your graduate education. They are teaching you the basics and the background about the field you are in and they lay the foundation for your future research. Some are really dry, some are outright boring. And then, there are some classes that inspire and encourage you to try things you had never even thought about before.

I am currently taking a class on Scientific Public Engagement that falls into this latter category. Before commencing this journey, I had never even thought about public engagement as a part of scientific success. However, in the end, everything in science comes down to communication! How well can I explain my research to other people? Can I make people care about science? Will this help me secure funding, grow as a scientist, and achieve my career goals?

In the beginning, all I associated with public engagement was writing grants, giving presentations, and working with different governmental agencies. But there are so many more opportunities out there beyond this.

In our very first class, we made a list of different ways a scientist can engage with the public. I was surprised to see how many of those things I was already doing. It starts out with simple things like fundraising, for example for the American Cancer Society, the Alzheimer’s Association, or the Special Olympics, or volunteering as a judge at the local science fair.

Social media is a big part of our personal lives, but it can also be used for public engagement. During the course of the semester, I started becoming active on Twitter (you can follow me under @julchens90). Posting snapshots of my daily life as a graduate student has been fun and eye opening. So many little things every day are funny, cute, or just so silly, and it’s fun to share them with the world. Since I started tweeting, I have steadily increased my number of followers, and it is rewarding to hear back from researchers around the world.

Wandering Wildcat | Photo via Facebook

Together with a group of classmates, I am establishing a blog series about the ins and outs of graduate school, titled “Grad School: The Good, the Bad and the Publishable.” The idea is to interest more students in getting a Ph.D. and pursuing a career in science. Another one of our brain-children is “The Wandering Wildcat”, an internet persona traveling the world visiting and joining scientists and students on their daily adventures (please follow it on Twitter: @WanderWildcat, Instagram: thewanderingwildcat, Facebook: Wander Wildcat). 

One day we did an exercise to explain our research in three easy pictures. My research is focused on the blood-brain barrier and glioblastoma. There are a multitude of pictures for those topics online, but I did not like any of them, so I decided to draw them myself.

This small exercise turned into a month-long project and a submission to a Science Communication Competition. The final cartoon movie explaining the function of the blood-brain barrier can be found on YouTube!

A very big part of scientific communication is talking to people; not only experts in your particular research area, but also lay audiences. I am a chatty person. However, when I have to get up in front of crowds, especially people I do not know, I freeze up and I do not want to speak. Over the last two years, I have given several poster presentations and I have gotten a lot better at it, but it is still a struggle. During this semester, I have given my first oral presentation at a regional graduate student conference. It was a great experience to get out there and try it. I have received a lot of feedback and encouragement from my fellow classmates. This support has encouraged me to step it up a notch and accept the opportunity to give a talk at a local science storytelling event “Everything is Science" in Lexington, April 26-28, 2018 (Twitter: @EiS_LEX, Instagram: eis_lex,Facebook; @EiSLEX).

Taking this class has connected me with likeminded people, which has been a blessing for me. The practice opportunities and constant feedback are helping me develop a specific skillset that I otherwise might not have acquired. The feedback is unique, especially because so many people from different backgrounds are getting together. This opens up a multitude of opportunities!

There are so many things I still want to try and so little time! I would like to do more science outreach with children. I think it is important to reach them when they’re young. We need to capture their minds early on and help them get excited about science. We need to show them that science is fun and see how it affects everyday life. To do this, I would like to expand on my movie project and maybe turn it into a series (please feel free to contact me on Twitter with any of your ideas!).

I will continue my fundraising and volunteering efforts and take every opportunity for public speaking I can get!

If you have the chance to do so, attend a public engagement class or workshop. Trust me; it will change how you think about science too.

If you're new to Twitter, here are some recommended Public Engagement hashtags: #365DaysOfScience #PublicEngagement #SciComm #GraduateStudentLife #PhDing

About Julia Schulz (Twitter: @julchens90)

I am a Ph.D. student in Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Kentucky College of pharmacy. I am writing this blog as a part of my public engagement class. #UKCOPPublicEngagement  #365DaysOfScience

I would like to thank all the students in the public engagement class for their help and input on all my projects. My special thanks go to Prof. Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova (Twitter: @GTsodikova, Instagram: gtsodikova, Facebook: Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova) for her constant feedback, support and encouragement.

Please feel free to reach out to me with any feedback or comments.