Carnegie Mellon University
October 20, 2021

Students and Science Flourish at ComSciCon

MCS graduate students, postdocs, faculty and staff participate in flagship science communication workshop

By Emily Payne

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate dean of communications, MCS

“Science is not finished until it’s communicated.”

Retired United Kingdom Chief Scientist Mark Walport stated this during a distinguished lecture on climate change to policymakers in 2013.

His words have continued to resonate with the scientific community years later — and it’s a sentiment biological sciences Ph.D. candidate Gary Wilkins both identifies and struggles with.

Communicating scientific evidence to the public is increasingly important in today’s climate, Wilkins noted. But, he admits, it can be hard to master public speaking and explaining his work to audiences effectively. 

“As scientists, we all have a responsibility to better communicate our work and actively advocate for public support,” said Wilkins.

To improve his skills, Wilkins attended ComSciCon in 2020.

“ComSciCon is ultimately about training and empowering graduate students to communicate their work to audiences beyond that of their own peers and colleagues,” said Wilkins.  

The workshop gives graduate students an opportunity to meet early-career leaders, network with experts across scientific disciplines and practice expressing complex scientific concepts to a wide range of audiences.

This year, Wilkins joined the organizing committee and was excited to get his fellow graduate students, postdocs, and others across the Mellon College of Science involved. Both MCS and the Department of Biological Sciences helped to sponsor the event.

"ComSciCon is ultimately about training and empowering graduate students to communicate their work to audiences beyond that of their own peers and colleagues."

During the workshop, participants gave daily Pop Talks where they broke down their work in 60 seconds or less. Using the virtual, interactive platform Gather, audience members used digital reactions — like a thumbs up or a question mark — to convey understanding or confusion in real-time. 

Academic and industry professionals led Write-a-Thons to peer-review participants’ writing samples to help improve their writing skills.

And invited experts led a wide range of panel discussions. Two of those panels included MCS’s Gizelle Sherwood and Ed Dunlea. Sherwood, an associate teaching professor of chemistry, touched on the dangers of wielding scientific evidence in the wrong way by walking attendees through a case study of how science was used to justify the exclusion of female Olympic athletes based on their testosterone levels.

Dunlea, MCS’s director of corporate and foundation relations, presented on careers in science communication outside of academia.

Their panels, among others, were of high interest to the graduate students and postdocs in attendance, Wilkins noted.

“We were fortunate and grateful to have the financial support of MCS and the Biological Sciences Department as well as a strong interest from students, faculty and staff,” said Wilkins. “I got a lot of satisfaction from seeing and knowing that my own colleagues were able to extract the same kinds of benefits as I did the previous year.”