By Rosa J. Chen
Image: Austin Distel on Unsplash
This past August, Cornell University graduate students hosted the annual ComSciCon-NY, a science communication conference comprised of a series of workshops and panels. Fifty attendees, including students and postdocs from various institutions across the state, gathered at Cornell’s Ithaca campus for two days of hands-on workshops, expert panels, and career networking. One major goal of the conference is to teach skills to narrow the large gap in understanding between the public and the scientific community. As the next generation of scientists, we need to help non-scientists to understand what it is that scientists do and why public engagement is important to the process of science.
One interesting session was on podcasts, a form of media that has taken the country, if not the world, by storm. Scientists have harnessed its power to communicate with the public, with formats ranging from journal club-style discussions, to interviews with other scientists, to didactic lessons on specific topics. The podcast panel featured experts from a variety of backgrounds. The first panelist was Katie Feather, a producer for a public radio podcast called Science Friday. Feather talked about her experience working with a well-respected public radio host and interviewer, and how each podcast episode takes a week to research, write, and then record in studio. The second panelist was newly minted Dr. Aravind Natarajan, a former Cornell graduate student who recently defended his dissertation. Natarajan is a co-founder and producer of Science Blender, a podcast that aims to amplify the voices of underrepresented groups in STEM to bolster persistence in STEM. The third panelist was Dr. Mark Savary, the Director of the Investigative Biology Teaching Laboratories at Cornell, and also the faculty advisor for the student-organized podcast, State of the Pod. This science and tech-focused podcasts aims to combat science miscommunication through journalistic reporting. The last panelist was Dr. Cynthia Leifer, an Associate Professor of Immunology at Cornell University. She is a co-host on the podcast Immune, a journal-club style discussion of immunology papers directed at scientists without immunology backgrounds.
After a brief panel discussion, conference attendees were divided up into groups for breakout sessions. Leifer led the group that I joined, and along with 9 other attendees, we practiced interviewing and being interviewed in a mock podcast episode. It was surprisingly difficult to speak naturally knowing that all your words were being recorded. Leifer gave valuable tips on how to be a better interviewer, including starting a conversation with your interviewee before you turn on the microphone to get the creative juices flowing and to establish a level of comfort and rapport. While I was being interviewed, I certainly felt myself letting down my guard as the interview went on, so I see the merit of casually starting a conversation before diving into the interview. Other tips for interviewers include rephrasing your subject’s response, instead of responding with the generic “oh, that’s cool!” and moving on to your next scripted question. Easier said than done, but it definitely makes a difference to the listener! It goes to show how gifted good interviewers really are, to be able to riff off of their subject and to let the conversation flow naturally instead of having a series of disjointed questions and responses. The session ended with participants taking turns playing the freshly recorded interviews out loud for the group, followed by a feedback debriefing session.
I have gained a newfound appreciation for podcast hosts, and especially those who effectively communicate science through their podcasts. Podcasting is an excellent way to reach audiences all over the world, embodying the concept that science should be accessible and inclusive. Through the power of storytelling, everyone can see themselves represented if a diverse body of podcast interviewers and interviewees are given a voice. Science podcasts allow the listener to decide between one-time engagements or sustained relationships between the host and the listener. The former can spark interest, whereas the latter can encourage persistence of scientific curiosity, even at a casual level. In this day and age, scientists may struggle to get the soundbite without losing the substance when communicating science, but the podcast revolution is a perfect example of how we can capitalize on cultural trends and utilize technology to engage the public and effectively communicate our science.
About the author: Rosa is a native Californian who is pursuing a PhD in Neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College. When she’s not in the lab studying pregnant mice and their babies, she can be found drinking lattes and listening to podcasts in sunny parks. Twitter: @rosajchen