Leshner Fellow, University of Hawai'i at Manoa Assistant Professor, and phenomenal mentor Mikey Kantar shares a few tips to help senior academics support early-career scientists with media engagements.
Learning to communicate your science is a process, it is often nerve-racking, and you will not always be happy with the final product – if there is one. Sometimes you will feel foolish, other times you will be thrilled with the result. As a mentor, I believe budding scientists need to be given a chance to learn to communicate in a wide range of media, and they need to be given a chance to learn at their own pace using their own voice -- centering themselves in their work. This post briefly summarizes what I have learned from mentoring students doing engagement, with a particular focus on media outreach.
Science (like many professions) is often a place where a premium is placed on not showing weakness or uncertainty. When mentors create a place for their mentees where it is okay not to know, communication can improve, as now both the mentor and mentee are free to explore multiple ways of understanding and communicating about a subject. As a mentor, I have found that there are several things that really help students gain skills and confidence when talking about their science with media outlets.
Being a mentor in science communication might seem easy since people usually enjoy talking about their passions and their expertise. Encouraging mentees to feel comfortable with their science is of course key, especially at early career stages. Often, they are the ones most in tune with the details of the science being done, which is a great asset. Mentors are tasked with helping, and sometimes creating opportunities for their mentees to engage. Creating appropriate opportunities is often an exercise in understanding the people who are leading the experience and what motivates them.
I’d like to share a few of the tips I’ve learned as an academic mentor to students looking to engage via the media in particular.
The first is to remember the story is about the person who actually did the work and remind them that it is about what they did and how they did it. This is important because as a mentor you are likely senior, so the reporter/press office/mentee will look to you to comment. In my experience this is especially true of university press offices, they want to highlight that it is their professors who are innovating and are longtime fixtures of the institutions. If this is your position it is important for the mentor to actively let the mentee take the lead in being quoted and explaining the work as the incentive structure provides all the opportunities for the mentee's contributions to be minimized.
Next, when you use images of mentees in the press or in promotional materials make sure the mentee has a chance to comment in the piece and make sure they are okay with the images selected. When possible, use images of mentees who are the leaders of the project not images of people working peripherally on the project, also avoid using images of mentees who are no longer working in the lab even if you may still retain the rights to their image because of corporate/university paperwork.
Third, help your mentee choose what type of media they want to engage with. Some mentees will want to do radio/podcast, some want to write, some want to do social media and some want to do a visual medium like television. There is no wrong way to engage, help your mentee understand the range of options and some of the principles of respectful, two-directional dialogue. When possible, share resources that can help the mentee to learn more and to feel prepared for the activity.
Fourth, it’s important to recognize that some mentees will not want to engage with the media – and that is okay, do not force them to engage with press as part of the project. The purpose of your role as a mentor is to find ways that encourage your mentees to communicate their work in ways that are comfortable and rewarding for them. Their engagement will ultimately suffer if they treat it as just another assignment or burden. As mentors, the onus is on us to help them find their footing and to support their growth.
Finally, as a mentor, I implore you to remember their engagement work is not about you: the narrative of the engagement and any accompanying recognition or coverage should center the person who actually did the work, not the person who conceived it or funded it. Your job is that of a supporting cast member, not the star of the show.
Mikey Kantar is an assistant professor of tropical plant and soil sciences at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and a 2019-2020 AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellow. Kantar’s research focuses on the intersection between genomics, agriculture and ecology. His lab’s goal is to examine the complex interactions necessary to create food systems that are more productive, healthy and sustainable. Kantar is currently the communications officer for the Plant Breeding Coordinating Committee (PBCC), an organization focused on how the public sector contributes to food security, education, and method development for plant breeding. Kantar completed his Ph.D. in plant breeding and genetics from the University of Minnesota. Follow Mikey on Twitter at @postdocsays.
Check out Mikey’s previous blog post, “The Power of Infographics: pairing scientists and artists."