Bridging the gap: training scientists to speak everyday English

Getting a start in your chosen career is never easy. Without experience it’s hard to get a job. And without a job you can’t get experience. That’s why the CIRM Bridges program was created, to help give undergraduate and Master’s level students a chance to get the experience they need to start a career in stem cell research.

Last week our governing Board approved a new round of funding for this program, ensuring it will continue for another 5 years.

But we are not looking to train just any student; we are looking to recruit and retain students who reflect the diversity of California, students who might not otherwise have a chance to work in a world-class stem cell research facility.

Want to know what that kind of student looks like? What kind of work they do? Well, the Bridges program at City College of San Francisco recently got its latest group of Bridges students to record an “elevator pitch”; that’s a short video where they explain what they do and why it’s important, in language anyone can understand.

They do a great job of talking about their research in a way that’s engaging and informative; no easy matter when you are discussing things as complex as using stem cells to test whether everyday chemicals can have a toxic impact on the developing brain, or finding ways to turn off the chromosome that causes Down’s syndrome.

Regular readers of the CIRM blog know we are huge supporters of anything that encourages scientists to be better communicators. We feel that anyone who gets public funding for their work has an obligation to be able to explain that work in words the public can understand. This is not just about being responsive, there’s also a certain amount of self-interest here. The better the public understands the work that scientists do, and how that might impact their health, the more they’ll support that work.

That’s why one of the new elements we have added to the Bridges program is a requirement for the students to engage in community outreach and education. We want them to be actively involved in educating diverse communities around California about the importance of stem cell research and the potential benefits for everyone.

We have also added a requirement for the students to be directly engaged with patients. Too often in the past students studied solely in the lab, learning the skills they’ll need for a career in science. But we want them to also understand whom these skills will ultimately benefit; people battling deadly diseases and disorders. The best way to do that is for the students to meet these people face-to-face, at a bone marrow drive or at a health fair for example.

When you have seen the face of someone in need, when you know their story, you are more motivated to find a way to help them. The research, even if it is at a basic level, is no longer about an abstract idea, it’s about someone you know, someone you have met.

Tune into Famelab: “American Idol” for scientists and engineers

I sometimes joke that I consider myself and my communications colleagues the “official translators” at the stem cell agency, trying to turn complex science into everyday English. After all, the public is paying for the research that we fund and they have a right to know about the progress being made, in language they can understand.

famelab

That’s why events like Famelab are so important. Famelab is like American Idol for scientists. It’s a competition to find scientists and engineers with a flair for public communication, and to help them talk about their work to everyone, not just to their colleagues and peers. Famelab gives these scientists and engineers support, encouragement and training them to find their voices, and to put those voices to use wherever and whenever they can; in the media, in public presentations, even just in everyday conversations.

Kathy Culpin works with the British Council to promote Famelab here in the US. She says it’s vitally important for scientists to be able to talk about their work:

“At the British Council we have worked with people who are doing amazing things but they can’t communicate to a broader audience. If scientists, particularly younger scientists, are unable to communicate effectively and clearly in a way that people want to listen to, in a way that people can understand, how are they going to have public support for their work, how are they even going to be able to raise funds for their work?”

The premise behind Famelab is simple: young up-and-coming scientists have just three minutes to present their research to a panel of three judges. They can’t use any slides or charts. Nothing. All they have is the power of their voice and whatever prop they can hold in their hands. For many scientists, taking away their PowerPoint presentation is like asking them to walk a tight rope without a safety net. It’s uncomfortable territory. And yet many respond magnificently.

Here’s Lyl Tomlinson, the winner of the most recent U.S. event, competing in the international finals. Appropriately enough Lyl’s presentation was on the role of running and stem cells in improving memory.

Famelab began in England but has now spread to 19 other countries. The competition starts at the regional level before progressing on to the national finals (April 2016) and then the international competition (June 2016, at the Cheltenham Science Festival in the UK).

In the U.S. there are a number of regional heats (you can find out by going here)

NASA helps run Famelab in the U.S. Daniella Scalice, the Education and Public Outreach Lead for the Astrobiology program at the agency, says Famelab is fun, but it has a serious side to it as well:

“We feel strongly that good communications skills are essential to a scientist’s training, especially for a Federal agency like NASA where we have a responsibility to the taxpayers to ensure they understand what their hard-earned dollars are paying for.  With FameLab, we hope to make learning best practices in communications easy and fun, and provide a safe environment for young scientists to get some experience communicating and meet other like-minded scientists.”

The next event in the U.S. is here in San Francisco on Monday, December 15 at the Rickshaw Stop at 155 Fell Street. Doors open at 6.30pm, competition starts at 7:30 P.

What is most fun about Famelab is that you never really know what to expect. One person will talk about the lifespan of the wood frog, the next will discuss the latest trends on social media. One thing is certain. It is always entertaining. And informative. And engaging. And isn’t that what science is supposed to be!

If you want to see how my colleagues and I at the stem cell agency tried to get stem cell scientists to develop sharper communication skills check out our Elevator Pitch Challenge.