Skip to main content

Alumni Boost Science through Communication

By Joy Metcalf

Science communication is an emerging field on a mission: to capture the public’s interest, demonstrate the importance of science, and cultivate their understanding of science. By capitalizing on social media, fostering collaboration among experts, and cultivating bibliophiles, STPF alumni are making their mark in this important field.

For John Ohab, 2007–09 Executive Branch Fellow at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and then Department of Defense, the fellowship is what launched him into science communications. At the time, the government was still shaping its role on social media. While Ohab helped support these efforts, he also ran the Defense Media Activity’s popular blog/podcast “Armed with Science,” where defense scientists take the lead in creating content. (Check out a popular segment “Dispatches From Antarctica.”)

“The communications landscape is constantly evolving, so it requires me to be open-minded and willing to challenge my instincts,” said John Ohab (pictured above). | Ernesto del Aguila, National Human Genome Research Institute

Ohab is now chief of the Communications and Public Liaison Branch of the National Human Genome Research Institute. “I am most fulfilled when I can bring together people with different expertise to accomplish something that will really make a difference.” he said. “Every day I get to learn from others who are truly experts in their craft. I see firsthand how their efforts help people understand and appreciate genomics research and its impact on human health.”

Passionate about science policy, Jamie L. Vernon, 2011–13 Executive Branch Fellow at the Department of Energy, discovered blogging as a way to drive attention to issues. He launched a blog in hopes of gaining access to other larger platforms with bigger audiences, including The Intersection—a blog “where science collides with life, …crashes with politics, and gets totaled.” His strategy paid off and Vernon became a regular contributor. 

Science policy was Jamie Vernon’s primary motivation for becoming a communicator. | Katie-Leigh Corder

His experience with social media drove home the fact that science communication is an integral part of policymaking. “I believe that we occasionally moved the needle on public dialogue around certain issues.”

Today as director of science communications and publications at Sigma Xi and editor-in-chief of American Scientist, Vernon is working to “enhance the health of the research enterprise, foster integrity in science and engineering, and promote the public’s understanding of science for the purpose of improving the human condition.” Since taking the helm, Sigma Xi has launched a blog network and increased its social media reach 300 percent.

Valerie Thompson was a 2012–14 Executive Branch Fellow at the National Science Foundation (NSF) during which she contributed to many communications activities including the Brain Power website, "FutureWork" radio documentary, and the DC Mini Maker Faire.

Valerie Thompson loves writing and talking about science and research. | Bridget Alzheimer

As associate book review editor at Science magazine, Thompson commissions book reviews. “I like to think of the Books section as a place where readers are challenged to reflect on the greater societal context of science.” Thompson looks for new and more diverse voices, and for media that promotes new or provocative ideas.

Also at Science, Brad Wible, 2005–07 Executive Branch Fellow at NIH, is a senior editor who works “to tell people why research matters and what society needs to consider in terms of social impacts, economics, ethics, politics, etc.” Like Thompson, he has always felt science was critical but underappreciated, so he works to make science “more attractive.” Also an alumnus of the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship, he uses his experience to keep science relevant, interesting, and diverse.

“Science and the broader social issues aren’t going to stop being relevant, so there will always be interesting angles in need of discussion. Hopefully the papers I publish in Science can help draw attention to, and drive discussion about, those issues.”

Science communication is a skill that not all fellows have in hand when they enter the program. After a year serving in their assignments and attending various STPF professional development events, all fellows leave equipped with enhanced communication skills.