Halfway through my Ph.D. in biochemistry at UCLA, I knew pursuing academic research was not a match for me long term. I loved exploring the biosciences, from applying computational tools to solve biological problems to understanding immunology to following the steps toward drug discovery. However, the day-to-day life of a scientist pursuing a single research project did not allow me to explore the full breadth of scientific discoveries. I had a love for science but did not know how I could pursue a scientific career outside academic research.
Then, in 2019, I saw a flier for UCLA’s annual Grad Slam, a competition in which graduate students present their research to a general audience in three minutes using three slides. My Ph.D. training had limited my scientific discussions to fellow academics, and sharing my research with nonscientists was an intriguing new challenge. I entered the competition.
Standing on a stage to explain my research in a jargon-free manner was refreshing, and the enthusiasm from the audience to learn more about the science was exhilarating. In addition, watching the presentations from fellow students fulfilled my desire to explore science’s full breadth. Thus sparked my new journey into science communication.
During my transition from academic to science communicator, countless colleagues asked me, “What is science communication?” Science communication, or scicomm, is a broad term to describe efforts that make science more accessible and increase the reach and understanding of research across a broader audience. Scicomm can take many forms, including science journalism, social media, videos, podcasts and public talks like the one I gave at Grad Slam.
From explaining the effectiveness of social distancing for preventing the spread of COVID-19 to communicating earthquake preparedness plans to the public, scicomm efforts are vital for helping turn research into action. Yet despite scicomm’s importance, it remains a hugely overlooked, underdeveloped and unknown area in academia. Academics are trained to communicate with other academics, and jargon-filled research papers prevent broad audiences from engaging with and understanding impactful scientific discoveries.
When universities devote resources to scicomm, they are often limited to professional development opportunities that train scientists how to communicate their own research only. Yet I know from firsthand experience how much time and effort are needed to become an effective science communicator. My scicomm journey was entirely self-taught, with the plan to leave academia and pursue a career as a science communicator.
Expecting full-time academics who are already overwhelmed with responsibilities to teach, mentor, conduct research and manage university administrative tasks to magically become scicomm wizards after a single training may not be realistic. While universities should offer more training opportunities for faculty and graduate students, we also need designated science communicators who can bridge the gap between academics and the public.
These scicomm professionals collaborate with researchers to help them communicate science to the public. Some universities have science writers who work with faculty to write press releases and articles about their latest studies. There are also private organizations that provide scicomm support for busy academics who want to communicate their research more broadly but don’t know where or how to start. One I have been working with is Footnote, which partners with scholars to translate their research and ideas into op-eds for media outlets like The Boston Globe, Fast Company, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, The Washington Post and Wired.
My experience with the UCLA Grad Slam motivated me to fill the need for effective, professional science communicators. In 2019, I launched my personal Twitter platform (@xiaofei_lin) to share my Ph.D. research in computational biology and discuss systemic issues in academia, such as mental health awareness and diversity, equity and inclusion. I encountered a hunger for scicomm and science advocacy work, and my platform grew to over 17,500 followers in just two years. During this time, I also built countless international collaborations with others working to make science more accessible through conferences, video series and podcasts.
My scicomm journey so far has taught me that science is not only about research at the bench, but also the humanity and interactions between scientists and the broader public. Communication is an integral part of the scientific process. It is time for academia to recognize scicomm’s full value and support professional science communicators who can help bridge the gap between researchers and the public.
Fay Lin is a science communicator, mental health advocate and former academic who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry from UCLA. You can learn more about her work at https://www.xiaofeilin.com/ or follow her on Twitter @xiaofei_lin.