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AAAS Fellow Sunshine Menezes on How to Tell Better Science Stories

Consider some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the last century—the 1969 lunar landing and Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine among them. For more than 50 years, their stories have been told time and time again—a politically-charged international race to the moon, the American people’s crowdfunding victory over a terrible illness.

Storytelling, says scientist, environmental communication professor and AAAS Fellow Sunshine Menezes, Ph.D., is an integral part of scientists’ jobs. When shared in a relevant, respectful, entertaining, and compelling way with public audiences—those people who aren’t focused first and foremost on research—science stories can improve lives, unveil wrongdoing, and influence policy. The problem is that most scientists, she says, aren’t great communicators.

photo of woman in orange shirt with backdrop of green grass field
AAAS Fellow Sunshine Menezes, Ph.D.

“Scientists have to tell stories to get grant funding, to get their papers published in academia and scientific research,” says Menezes. “We are supposed to be great storytellers, yet we generally tell stories only for other scientists.”

Good science stories create meaning for audiences far beyond the labs and research hubs where their science is developed. When science doesn’t make it out of the academic bubble or is communicated ineffectively, its ability to drive societal change and increase public confidence in the scientific community is severely limited.

For the past 17 years, Menezes has served as director of the Metcalf Institute, a University of Rhode Island (URI) program that advances informed and inclusive public conversations about environmental issues. Through various programs, Menezes’ team teaches scientists how to become better communicators and journalists how to produce better science stories. In practice, that might look like educating scientists on the norms and culture of journalism—that drafts are confidential until publication, for example, and that journalism stories are written for an eighth-grade language level.

Core to the Metcalf Institute’s mission is something called “inclusive science communication.” Besides being intentional, reciprocal, and reflexive, it also requires the communicator to be attentive and responsive to their audience. In other words, inclusive science communication is equitable.

“Science communication is a public good when it’s done well, but it can be a public harm when it’s not done well,” says Menezes, adding that a big piece of the work is “really centering the perspectives of people who have been marginalized in science, technology, and engineering, and understanding their priorities, concerns, and interests.”

It’s why the Metcalf Institute, along with Bruno Takahashi, Ph.D., and his team at Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, and Professor Jason Jaacks of the URI Science and Story Lab, has launched the SciComm Identities Project (SCIP). Over the next five years, the project will help more than 50 early career researchers from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds become better science communicators.

While typical science communication training focuses on teaching scientists how to interact with news media and deliver a clear message, SCIP’s training will go beyond that to focus first and foremost on how participants can integrate various aspects of their identity into their science communication to make it more effective and authentic. As part of their training, the scholars will produce a public-facing podcast episode about their work. Menezes hopes SCIP will create a new type of science communication training curriculum “that really focuses on intersectional identities and on the ways we communicate across cultures.”

“Most of the time, the academy doesn’t value public-facing work for promotion and tenure,” says Menezes. “That's doubly the case if you are engaging marginalized communities, so we're purposely pushing on the boundaries of academic norms with this project and the podcast episodes.”

Menezes own interest in science began in her rural backyard in Northern Michigan. The self-described child of science-curious hippies, who instilled in her the importance of meaningfully contributing to the world from a young age, Menezes had an idyllic childhood spent exploring the natural world. Without the typical distractions—her home didn’t get electricity until she was in the fifth grade—she turned her attention to life forms on her property, which led her to pursue an undergraduate degree in zoology at Michigan State University. 

The following year, she began her Ph.D. in biological oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, where she studied the biodiversity of nanoplankton in a local estuary. The research was a turning point in Menezes’ career—the fieldwork was exciting, but long days spent in a dark room staring down a microscope didn’t suit her, she says.

“I realized that that was not the best use of me, because I'm a very outgoing person. I really like interacting with people,” says Menezes, who traded her lab for the halls of Congress when she earned a Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Sea Grant Program.

Congress was the arena where she learned the importance of effective science communication, particularly in communicating science to the public. While she has carried on that work at the Metcalf Institute, she is looking forward to what’s next. The Metcalf Institute is currently hiring for a new director as Menezes looks to expand her research in inclusive science communication.

“I'm really excited to pass the baton to the next person who's going to do this work,” says Menezes. “Science communication, it doesn't have to be an ‘either or’ thing. A person can be a faculty member, and a researcher, and also be a public communicator in whatever context is well suited to them.”

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