Jun 08

Three-Minute Thesis: What makes good science communication?

To me, science communication has a loose definition: explaining science in a way that anyone can understand. It stirs a desire to be understood and share cool facts with my family and friends. I was curious to see what would come up if I looked up its definition, and I was not disappointed by the Wikipedia entry: “Science communication is the practice of informing, educating, raising awareness of science-related topics, and increasing the sense of wonder about scientific discoveries and arguments.” This is an excellent snapshot of the goals of a scientist: to discover and make those discoveries accessible in order to effectively contribute to society. However, this is easier said than done. If you are a scientist who spends many hours entrenched in research, how can you make a high resolution topic easily understandable?

The Three Minute Thesis competition, or “3MT,” invites PhD students to do just that: explain their research in 180 seconds or less to a general audience. Originating at the University of Queensland, Australia in 2008, this competition now takes place at universities worldwide, including CU Boulder. 3MT is the perfect test for a scientific communicator since one must balance many skills at once, such as being succinct, avoiding jargon, and captivating your audience. The CU Boulder competition had three winners: Varsha Rao won 1st place, Shirley Huang was the runner up, and Vishal Ray won the people’s choice award. These skilled communicators got to the heart of their research with creative analogies and accessible language, and as an audience member, I felt hooked. I interviewed the winners to understand the challenges of the competition.

First Place: Varsha Rao

Runner Up: Shirley Huang

People’s Choice: Vishal Ray

“I feel like we are so wrapped up in the technical aspects of our research that we forget to look at the big picture,” said Ray, a PhD candidate in Dr. Daniel Scheeres’s Celestial and Spaceflight Mechanics Laboratory. When he isn’t researching the effects of atmospheric drag on satellite orbits, he serves on the International Student Advisory Board to help create a community for international students like himself. While space research topics can readily spark interest, it takes practice and skill to bring it to a comprehensible level. “There’s a very fine balance between educating your audience with facts and telling the story of your research,” Ray explained.

Rao, a PhD candidate in Dr. Kristi Anseth’s bioengineering lab, studies a type of bone marrow-derived cells called mesenchymal stromal cells. She also spoke to some of the challenges she faced when beginning her journey in 3MT, and explained, “When I began conducting informational interviews, it became evident that I really couldn’t communicate my research or my interests in a clear, concise manner. I noticed most people lost interest or were confused about my work.” She noticed that when trying to portray a rational, objective researcher, “our scientific presentations become totally devoid of emotion.” This highlights how the need to be factually correct can come across as robotic when unpracticed. Having your facts in order is only the first step toward a well-rounded presentation, especially when presenting for 3MT, where it is important to tell a story.

Additionally, making science accessible is more than just sharing the thrill of discovery. “Science needs to be accessible to all, particularly to underrepresented communities who have historically not been a part of the science process,” said Huang, a PhD candidate in Dr. Pui Fong Kan’s Child Language Learning Lab. Rather than focusing on science communication for just a lay audience, Huang is particularly focused on the government sector, and is “especially interested in communicating science to policy makers who are responsible for creating policies that have potential to change an entire society.” Huang studies bilingual language learning in children, especially through a cultural and socioeconomic lens. Her research points to a need to understand the diverse backgrounds of an audience in order to tailor scientific communication to their needs. Over-complicated word choice can be particularly challenging for non-native speakers. This also applies to those who haven’t had the privilege of a formal education, especially in science. A practiced scientific communicator can further apply their skills to advocating for underrepresented communities, which is of particular interest to Huang: “The ‘language’ we use to describe our research to other scientists is not the same language we use to talk to policy makers! It is important that scientists learn how to adjust our communication so that it is accessible and understood by all.”

Rao, Huang, and Ray all participated in workshops facilitated by experts in communication, which included a workshop facilitated by an improv troupe. “The leader would shout out an emotion, such as irritated or excited, and the presenter had to change their demeanor mid-talk. This experience was so eye opening!” said Rao of one of her favorite parts of the workshop. It seemed to be very helpful in bringing emotion back to the table when talking about their detailed thesis topics. Huang also reflected positively on this workshop: “I learned that all scientists benefit from getting silly, which can help unleash our creative and innovative ideas!” Despite the challenges of scientific communication, the 3MT winners rose to the occasion and delivered engaging presentations. The competition helped them realize new skills they needed to succeed. “It forces you to condense all your work to the main basic idea,” Ray noted.

There are many important aspects to scientific communication that make it something of an art form. It can be approached from different angles, such as making it fun, making it accessible, and perhaps most importantly, being passionate about your subject. Rao described her particular recipe for success: “I think finding appropriate and familiar metaphors and comparisons is an essential part of communicating science, both to other scientists and to the public at large. Envisioning my cells as movie directors and my material system as a Hollywood set made it instantly accessible to my audience.” By employing methods like this, it is easier to reach the audience and grab their attention. Once you have that , it is easier to share your fascination with the topic, teaching them what you know. “All the work we do is definitely contributing to society’s progress, one way or the other. We just have to really zoom out and extract the main ideas so that the audience can have their ‘Aha!’ moment!” Ray said, recapitulating the importance of scientific communication.

It is evident that the 3MT winners share a passion for science, and they have found something that makes them happy enough to want to share it with as many people as they can. Practicing good scientific communication only serves to strengthen the scientific community. Explaining scientific details can do so much more than teaching barebones facts. Through practice, we can also teach others that science sparks a lifelong joy, and inspire more people to become scientists.

By Lyanna Kessler

A recording of the competition finale is available here: