Science Outreach and Informal Education at What Can You Be with a PhD (WCUB)

By Helena Mello 


Moderator: Russell J. Ledet, M.S., NYU School of Medicine, New York, NY.

Speakers: Jeanne Garbarino, Ph.D. The Rockefeller University, New York, NY.

                  Joe Hanson, Ph.D. PBS Digital Studios, Austin, TX.

                  Julie Nadel, Ph.D. The New York Academy of Sciences, New York, NY.


Public awareness of science is a major subject of interest among the scientific community, as demonstrated by the huge turnout for the March for Science across the United States this past April. Panelists at the “Science Outreach and Informal Education” at WCUB 2017 discussed the importance of communicating research findings to the non-scientific community, and how PhDs can gain exposure to this emerging field. The panelists from different backgrounds agreed that science outreach jobs require more than an extensive list of publications or awards – they require exposure to the field, and most importantly, empathy and connection at a human level with your audience.

An overarching theme across all panels at WCUB was, “How important was your doctoral training for the job you have now?” In the science outreach and education panel, Julie Nadel started by stating that “a Ph.D. degree adds a lot of legitimacy to your expertise.” Jeanne Garbarino added that her Ph.D. and post-doctoral training were “invaluable experiences” that enabled her to bridge the worlds of scientific research and outreach. Joe Hanson described his role as being “a little bit of an interpreter” who delivers scientific information to a public that would never interact with scientists otherwise. He mentioned that his Ph.D. training taught him how scientific research is carried out and that this perspective is extremely helpful when communicating science to non-scientists. All panelists emphasized that the doctoral training will provide you with the understanding of the scientific process; however, you need to go above and beyond this training to learn how to effectively communicate science. They also emphasized that it is important to keep in mind that providing more information is not necessarily a good remedy for science ignorance.

What, then, makes a good science communicator? It is commonly said that scientists cannot explain their work, and frequently use jargon (who outside of a lab knows what a Western Blot is? How about an epitope, or a plasmid?). In order to engage with our audience, we have to demonstrate empathy and be willing to connect at a personal level. It might seem silly, but as Russell pointed out “we have to be able to have normal conversations with people.” Aside from empathy, other skills such as academic writing, public speaking, teaching, and critical thinking—which are all key elements of the Ph.D. experience—are required to become a successful communicator. You may learn some of these skills, such as public speaking, through your Ph.D. training, while you may never learn other skills like storytelling or teaching during your Ph.D. A strong motivation is crucial. For example, Dr. Hanson shared that he has had an irresistible urge to write about science, even as a graduate student. Panelists also assured that science outreach careers are not necessarily low paid, nor do careers in industry and science outreach have to be mutually exclusive. Dr. Jeanne Garbarino pointed out that one of the best things about her job is that it never gets “boring” and no two working days of a week are similar.

So how does one gain the skills not taught in graduate school while still a student? One can volunteer: science outreach offers many volunteer opportunities that do not interfere with lab and class schedules. Jeanne’s RockEDU program, for example, is extremely flexible in terms of time commitment. You can volunteer as your schedule (and perhaps your PI) allows, and still play a large role in the program’s success. Other programs such as The Afterschool STEM Mentoring Program, a 16-week long experience at NYAS, requires PI approval, ensuring that both you and your mentor are aware of your time commitments. There may also be volunteer opportunities available at your institution. For example, Russell suggested reaching out to the communications department of your institution to write science-related articles for them in order to gain skills for success in the field of science writing. Regardless of how you choose to get involved, the take-home message of the panel was that a strong applicant for science outreach jobs has a resume that demonstrates “authenticity, consistency, and enthusiasm,” as pointed out by Jeanne. Panelists cautioned against considering a career in science communication as a “last option” after not-so-successful stints in other career paths, with no real interest in science outreach.

Whether you look online, on your campus, or in your town, there are many resources that will help you become a strong applicant for jobs in science outreach. You can reach out to any professional society* you may belong to, as many of them run outreach programs and/or offer communication and other courses. One last suggestion is to conduct informational interviews for advice that applies to any career you explore. Informational interviews are the best way to learn about a specific job and broaden your network. Ask questions like “how did you get started?” and “what can I be doing to be where you are?”. Furthermore, remain connected to those with whom you interview—they might think of you next time they have an opportunity! In conclusion, if you are considering a career in science outreach, you should know commitment and passion are key. Moreover, you have both the ability and the responsibility to take action and gain exposure to the field early in your graduate career.

*Jeanne Garbarino is a member of the public outreach committee of ASBMB. This committee funds outreach projects/ideas brought up by ASBMB members.


Keywords: science communication, science outreach, STEM education, career advice

Author: Helena Mello BSc. is a Ph.D. Candidate at Rutgers University.

Editors: Soumyadeep Mukherjee, Tristan Fehr