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When preparation meets opportunity

Kathleed mid-interview with the Syntalks podcast. Photo used with permission from author.

by Kathleen Hefferon

The Alliance for Science’s inaugural “Speaking Science” workshop took place this past June at Cornell University and was a big step for many of us who want to brush up on our communication skills and be more involved with public engagement. Many of the attendees were students and researchers who focus on the plant sciences, including the generation of genetically modified (GM) crops.

It is clear that as scientists, we need to engage more than ever with the public, but often we do not know where to begin. This workshop taught us how to write engagingly for a public audience and gave us opportunities and tools to practice communicating our personal research. We learned how to build a professional social media presence. On the last day, we put it all together and applied what we had learned to create a public message using our favorite media form (eg video, talking to a reporter, social media, blogging, op ed). I chose as my media experience something I had never done before, an interview with a reporter on camera. I found it a challenge to get over my shyness and talk about my research on plant-made pharmaceuticals and the controversies associated with them.  I left the workshop feeling well practiced and ready for anything.

Kathleen Hefferon - Certificate
Kathleen receives her Speaking Science certificate of completion. | Photo used with permission from author.

Imagine my surprise when I found an invitation to practice these skills in my inbox the next morning! It came from a student member of the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM), asking me to be on a podcast about my own research! I couldn’t believe the good timing and jumped at the opportunity. iGEM is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to education and competition, the advancement of synthetic biology, and the development of an open community and collaboration. The podcast was run by a student design team and was to be part of a series called “Syntalks”, in which local scientists involved in the field of synthetic biology are interviewed about their research. The students were nice enough to send me their questions beforehand, so that I could prepare.

A few extra queries came my way as well during the recording session. Questions ranged from “How did I define synthetic biology” to “What ethical issues are associated with my research?” and even to “What advice would you give students who want to get involved in this type of research?” The atmosphere was friendly, and the interviewers gave me a signal I could use if I wanted to stop midway through. That way, I could take a second stab at answering a question and the tech team could edit out any slips or blunders on my part. It was a wonderful experience and I enjoyed collecting my thoughts into a format that would be clear to an audience of students as well as the general public.

As scientists in this day and age, you never know when you may be asked to step outside the box and engage with the public on issues that some may consider to be controversial. Many of us find the prospect of explaining the ethical sides of our research to be uncomfortable at best. Thanks to the Speaking Science workshop, I could not have been better prepared! If you want to hear my episode of the Podcast, you can listen to it on Soundcloud.


About Kathleen

Kathleen Hefferon received her PhD  from the University of Toronto and worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Food Sciences and Technology at Cornell University. Over the past academic year, Kathleen has been awarded the Fulbright Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. Her research interests include food and energy security, public health, agricultural biotechnology and science communication.


AAAS offers Communicating Science workshops much like the one attended by today's author. Workshop goals include building scientists’ communication skill and confidence in engaging with public audiences and providing best practices for use of different communication methods and mechanisms. Visit our website to learn more!

Representative Image Caption
<p>Kathleed mid-interview with the&nbsp;<a href="" target="_blank">Syntalks</a>&nbsp;podcast. Photo used with permission from author.</p>