Improving science communication: Insights from scientists and nonscientists

One of the goals of the Pipettepen blog is to train science communicators to share science with nonscientists. However, as both scientists and nonscientists know, this communication is not always as seamless as it could be. In the spirit of improving science communication, I interviewed scientists and nonscientists for their opinions on the current state of science communication. Everyone I interviewed shared interesting thoughts about what scientists can do to improve science communication and what nonscientists should know about science and research. Below, I share a subset of those comments and insights. The quotes have been edited for brevity and clarity (see Notes 1 and 2)

Insights from nonscientists: Things that scientists should know when communicating science

Be respectful and use simple language.

“In my view, many scientists have a difficult time remembering life before they spoke Science. Scientists who truly want to engage their lay audiences need to speak in everyday language. Be respectful of people’s intelligence but do not expect them to have knowledge of terminology and jargon exclusive to a laboratory or a field of science.” – Suzanne Dane, Research Institute Community Outreach

“Often, nonscientists feel intimidated by the lingo that scientists use. To help avoid this, scientists could create a system defining basic scientific terms to help nonscientists navigate the scientific conversation. This could be a go-to website, a synopsis at the beginning of science articles [like a tl;dr], or even a glossary of terms at the ends of science articles. This will help scientists and nonscientists get on the same page and will also convey open and honest communication about controversial topics.” – Will Rose, Lutheran Pastor

“A scientist who can break down the complexities of their science for the lay person makes that lay person into a conduit. This person can then relay this science to others, which spreads the scientific word and garners greater attention for the science. This can even lead to future funders for science.” – Brandi Childers, Research Institute Assistant Director of Programs

Convey a story.

“Scientists can vastly improve their messages to nonscientists by explaining why they do their work rather than how. Tell us what compels you to do your work. What do you hope to uncover? Why is it important? Why do you want us to care? Those are the messages that will drive sincere interest in your work from nonscientists.” – Suzanne Dane, Community Outreach at the Nutrition Research Institute

“I wish that scientific findings were presented as a full story. Instead, findings are often presented as isolated discoveries, which can lead to confusion for nonscientists.” – Eric Helfrich, Information Technology

Provide a complete picture of the scientific field to avoid misinformation.

“In a world where news feeds are dominated with sensationalist, out of context, and overly dramatized headlines, it is easy for highly nuanced information to be lost during the modern media consumption. The expression of scientific discovery is often not revealed entirely to non-scientific readers. This shortcut is a huge disservice not only because it promotes misinformation, but also because it deprives the public of knowledge about the amazing world that we live in.” – Josh Swain, Account Representative

“Too often, scientific findings are presented as disjointed results instead of a full report. To achieve better understanding among nonscientists, it might be helpful for the media to wait to discuss certain scientific findings until there is a better consensus about the right answer instead of discussing a single research result in isolation.” – Eric Helfrich, Information Technology

“Market” your research.

“It is my opinion that the modern scientific community suffers from a marketing problem. There is a lack of understanding of how to draw public interest into highly detailed and specialized topics. Often people try to overcome this shortcoming by overly simplifying complex topics. This leads to the message falling short.” – Josh Swain, Account Representative

“Most scientists tend to be introverted and focused on research and are less likely to want to leave their lab to share their science. This leads to only certain scientists getting their science shared, when all scientists should be sharing their work. One answer is to start using Twitter and websites. Scientists can even just start with sharing other scientists’ posts and research. This is one of the best ways to connect with nonscientists about your research.” – Will Rose, Lutheran Pastor

Apply your research.

“It is my belief that engineers and scientists alike become enamored with ‘their’ data and ‘their’ science and lose sight of the practical application and implementation of their discoveries.  At the front end of research and data collection, scientists should ask the question: ‘how will this discovery be useful and applicable in the future’. Then after years of work, scientists should ask: 1) How can society (any aspect of any given society) benefit from this discovery, 2) How can/should this discovery be implemented, and 3) Who will be the caretaker of implementing this finding.” – Joe Kotwis, Mechanical Engineer

“In the goal to make science accessible for nonscientists, much of the meaning and details of the science gets lost. The outcome is that the science is no longer applicable to our lives due to the context-specific conditions, and we ultimately label the science as not helpful. Nonscientists are capable of understanding a contextualized story where a finding is true in some cases and not in others.” – Eric Helfrich, Information Technology

Insights from scientists: Things that nonscientists should know about research and science

Science is exciting!

“Most people see science as a cold, rational subject; however, the process of science could be characterized as an art. The art of science is apparent in the flow of a scientific story which is created by the sum of meticulously crafted and answered questions. The larger the questions, the longer, more intricate, and nuanced the story. In the end, the greatest stories a scientist works on usually remain unfinished in their lifetime and instead will be pursued by the next generation. So goes the life cycle of a scientist.” – Evan Paules, Doctoral candidate in nutritional biochemistry

Research is difficult.

“I want nonscientists to know that science takes a long time and that we don’t get answers as quickly as we, or you, might want.” – Abrar Al-Shaer, Doctoral student in nutrition

“The scientific process comes with immense effort and a great amount of work; probably fivefold greater than most people would image. It is in this process that most scientists try to prove themselves incorrect and are highly skeptical of their work to ensure that their findings can be replicated and stand the test of time. Once one question has been crafted and answered, another comes in quick succession and the process repeats.”  – Evan Paules, Doctoral candidate in nutritional biochemistry

Science is about facts and about discovering those facts.

“Science does not have an agenda, and scientists are not politicians trying to convince you one way or another. We as scientists seek the truth, often battling our own personal demons of belief and opinion, and we aim to disseminate the facts as we find them. Additionally, the fact that scientists are willing to change their minds with new data is NOT an indication that our previous conclusions were wrong. Sure, sometimes we get it horribly wrong, and even make dangerous conclusions sometimes, but the vast majority of the time we are simply fine-tuning our previous findings.” – Grant Canipe, Doctoral candidate in psychology and neuroscience

“The field of science is always changing due to new studies and results. Also, for each piece of information we do know, there are ten times more facts that we don’t know yet that we have to keep studying to find out.” – Abrar Al-Shaer, Doctoral student in nutrition

Scientists care about people and animals.

“When public health researchers approach you in hospitals to find volunteers for our projects, our primary concern is your well-being. We’re nice people, so please take our surveys!” – Lisa Emerson, Masters student in public health and epidemiology

“Scientists use animals for research only when we have exhausted all other options for a particular experiment. We are not cruel people and we care for the animals as ethically as possible.” – Kristen Jeffries, PhD, Protein chemist

“Public health is a science, like any other, that uses data and lots of studies to inform public policy decisions and recommendations. Some of these decisions have increased life expectancy in the U.S. by 30 years since 1900.” – Lisa Emerson, Masters student in public health and epidemiology

Scientists don’t always look like what you think.

“Most scientists are not stuffy, old white men. We are actually quite diverse, which is beneficial when many different perspectives are needed to complete a project.” – Kristen Jeffries, PhD, Protein chemist

Scientists are not the same as medical doctors, but we still know a lot!

“Between the time we spend in school to earn a PhD and then additional training as a postdoctoral researcher, scientists at the top of their fields are trained for the same amount of time (or longer) as medical doctors. However, the public often questions the ideas of expert scientists more than they question the advice of medical doctors.” – Kristen Jeffries, PhD, Protein chemist

“I wish nonscientists understood the difference between medical doctors and doctors of philosophy (PhD). Scientists with PhDs conduct research and know a lot about the area that they are currently researching. They don’t prescribe any medicines.” – Nipun Saini, PhD, Nutritional biochemist


           I found it enlightening to speak with people who have diverse insights into science communication. I hope that these insights will add to a continued conversation between scientists and nonscientists. I encourage readers to ask scientists and nonscientists in their lives to share their opinions and thoughts about science, and with these shared thoughts, we can push science forward to improve our lives!

Note 1: Although everyone is a scientist when they ask questions and find answers, I use the term “non-scientist” to refer to people for whom science is not their chosen profession.

Note 2: In the spirit of the scientific transparency, I disclose here my methods of obtaining the insights written in this article. I contacted scientists and nonscientists verbally, by email, or via Facebook and asked for their participation. This was not a random sample of people; these people were primarily people that I know, which means that this sample is biased. This is also a small sample and is not a complete overview of all the insights that people have about science communication. The insights and comments were emailed to me, texted to me, or were compiled from notes taken during a phone call or a face-to-face conversation.

Peer edited by Caitlyn Molloy.

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New Year, New Earth? The Environment in 2019

2019, “new year, new me,” as they say. Many people have new goals; maybe they’ll read more, go to the gym more, or try to improve relationships. Whatever your New Year’s resolution, one goal everyone should have is to think about and care more for the environment. The environment sustains us, as it provides us with food, materials for shelter, and ultimately, life. It has been about a month into the 2019 and a lot of wildlife in the United States and around the world has been negatively affected.

The Government Shutdown Affected More than Federal Employees

Due to the government shutdown, federal employees at went unpaid. At national parks, fewer employees went to work, resulting in fewer people available to efficiently take care of the parks. Previous administrations closed the parks during government shutdowns, however the Trump Administration allowed understaffed parks to remain open. At several parks, lack of staff led to damaged parks and eventually park closure. Visitors broke park rules, such as allowing their pets in the parks and off of leashes, and campgrounds were overflowing with trash. AP News reported damage to normally restricted areas, illegal driving off of marked trails, an increase of trash, and maybe most disappointingly, a rise in human bodily waste. Human presence in restricted areas interfered with daily activities surrounding protected species, and plants that take decades to centuries to grow were destroyed, meaning it could take decades to centuries for parks to recover, even though it took a few seconds to destroy.

Rollback of Environmental Regulations

Under the Obama administration, many environmental regulations were put in place to protect the environment from human damage. However, the Trump administration has rolled back many of those regulations, claiming these regulations harm local businesses or don’t help reduce natural disasters like forest fires. National Geographic has kept a running list since March 2017 on environmental regulations, decisions, and news during the Trump administration. Rollback of coal regulations have been primarily covered by media outlets due the harsh environmental and health impacts of coal mining and the decreasing use of coal. In February 2017, Congress and Trump revoked the “Stream Protection Rule,” which provided restrictions to dumping mining waste into nearby water. Not only do organisms live in those waters, but humans use freshwater as drinking water. With an increasing global population and limited amounts of freshwater, water conservation is crucial.

Ferruginous Pygmy Owls are at most 6 inches in height.

Lastly, the border wall that is constantly a point of contention for Trump and Congress would be a danger to animals, scientists say. The wall wouldn’t prevent people from crossing the border, but it would prevent hundreds of species from accessing resources for survival, leading to species endangerment. Pygmy owls live in the U.S. – Mexico region, but fly close to the ground to hunt. With a wall, they wouldn’t be able to fly over to search for food or shelter. Javelinas, a pig like mammal, also roam the areas searching for food. By separating species from their habitats, we are active in their disappearance.

Species lost in 2018, and those on track to become extinct

We have already lost many species in the past few decades and we are on track to lose many, many more. Species doesn’t just include animals, but plants and insects as well. It’s easy to think of a species’ extinction as contained (where the extinction of one animal doesn’t have any impact), but extinction has a much larger impact by disrupting the food chain and affecting the viability of other species. Habitats and ecosystems have evolved to include all of the organisms within them, and when this balance is disrupted, it can lead to extreme environmental damage and catastrophic chains of events. This can be thought of as an extinction cascade, and can result from climate change, habitat and species destruction by humans, and introduction of invasive species. These combined factors have led scientists to suggest that we are currently experiencing the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history, as defined by “when the Earth loses more than three-quarters of its species in a geologically short [time] interval.”

It is only a matter of time until the Northern Rhino is only seen in history books.
  • The Northern White Rhino will become extinct in 2019. Its horn, thought to have medicinal properties, has been the target of extreme poaching, even when protected by armed guards. In 2018, the population of the Northern white rhino was reduced to just three rhinos, two females and one male. However, the male died in 2018, ensuring the extinction of the species.
  • Fewer than 30 Vaquita Porpoises remain in the wild because humans have been harvesting their bladders for unique foods.
  • Many species of insects have been rapidly declining in numbers (Monarch butterfly is a well known example). This is exceedingly important with regards to ecosystems and food chains, since insects feed many animals, help with decomposition, and maintain the habitats in which they live. See a video here on why insects are so important to us. (A prime example of extinction cascade)
  • There are two types of extinction: Extinct from the wild, where no animal remains in the wild, they can only be found in captivity, and extinct, where the animal cannot be found anywhere in the world. The U.S. just lost its last wild Caribou, meaning the Caribou is extinct from the wild in the U.S.
  • If you don’t care about animal extinction, then let me tell you that coffee plants are threatened with extinction. Have I gotten your attention now?

On a positive note…

While this article may seem disheartening, and as heartbreaking as it is to lose species we grew up with (such as rhinos), we are also making a lot of progress with keeping the environment healthy. In October of 2018, Trump signed a bill to help clean plastic out of the Earth’s oceans. It doesn’t make up for other environmental regulation rollbacks, but it is a large step forward, since plastics in the ocean has detrimental effects on sea life.

Green (or renewable) energy, which is energy that comes from natural resources and can be replenished in a human’s lifetime, such as sunlight, wind, and water, is becoming more and more commonly used around the world. Not only are these forms of energy good for the environment, but they are projected to become inexpensive compared to coal and gas, making them cost effective as well. Countries are already sustaining themselves on green energy, and aim to reach 100% green energy use by a certain point in the future. For example, for 300 days in 2018, Costa Rica generated 100% of their energy from renewable resources!

Tigers are the only large cats that swim!

Many organisms, such as the Tardigrade, have evolved to withstand extreme environments and circumstances. So it is possible that there are a plethora of organisms on our Earth we have yet to discover that could withstand critical environmental change. Science has also advanced enough that, while we may not be able to directly prevent extinction, we can slow it down, or help preserve some characteristics of dying species. For example, Northern and Southern white rhinos are more closely related than previously thought, and we might be able to create a new hybrid species through IVF. Through conservation, Nepal has doubled their wild tiger population! Baraboo, Wisconsin is home to the International Crane Foundation which aims to educate the public about all 15 species of Cranes and how they are trying to save the species. Lastly, on February 12th, 2019, the U.S. Senate voted to protect more than 100 million acres of wilderness across the United States, a bill that has been in the works for four years!

How can you help?

One thing we can do to help our environment is education and outreach. Reduce the amount of waste thrown away, reuse containers and bags, and go to a local county website to look at recycling options. Orange County of NC has a great page on what you can recycle and where to recycle. Reducing our waste and the amount of non-biodegradable objects that go into the environment will help keep species safe.

A damaged earth can survive without us, but we cannot survive without a healthy earth.

Peer edited by Emma Hinkle and Connor LaMontagne.

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Where Motivation Hides
Image courtesy of

Recently, I couldn’t find my keys. They weren’t where I usually keep them. Turns out, I was so distracted when I came home that I left them dangling in the lock.

Other days, I’m looking for my phone. Where could I have put it? Oh yeah, there it is, on top of my refrigerator where I left it while I was cooking.

Sometimes though, I’m looking for motivation. Unfortunately, I can’t find that in a lock or on top of the refrigerator. But where can you find motivation? As elusive as motivation can seem, psychologists and neuroscientists have identified strategies and parts of your brain that contribute to feeling motivated.

According to psychologists, there are three main factors that contribute to motivation: autonomy, value, and competence. For many of us, feeling like you have to do something kills any motivation to complete that task. However, shifting your mindset from “have to” to “choose to” can energize you and remind you of the benefits of completing that task.

Similarly, aligning a task with your values can give you a sense of autonomy and increase your investment in it. Even still, it can be difficult to even start something if you feel like you do not have the skills to do it. In this case, remembering that “practice makes perfect” can help you see how important putting in the effort will help you improve for the future.

Neuroscientists are also investigating a growing link between dopamine and motivation. While dopamine is commonly associated with pleasure, movement, and focus, research in rats and humans suggests it also contributes to motivation.

Researchers at the University of Connecticut  found that rats with low dopamine levels were more likely to choose a nearby pile of food rather than an equally close pile with twice as much food that required jumping over a small fence. The scientists concluded that lower dopamine levels in rats is connected to lower motivation.
High levels of dopamine associated with motivation were found in parts of the frontal lobe (right), while high levels of dopamine in the anterior insula (blue) did not contribute to motivation. Image courtesy of Shappelle/Wikipedia

Using brain mapping, scientists at Vanderbilt University saw that self-described “go-getters” had high levels of dopamine in  parts of the brain associated with reward and motivation, the striatum and ventromedial prefontal cortext. However, “slackers” displayed high levels of dopamine in the anterior insula, which is important for emotion and risk perception.

These studies highlight how not just dopamine levels, but also where in the brain the dopamine is, can influence your feelings of motivation. So next time you’re looking for motivation, focus on your sense of autonomy, values, and competence or even try some natural ways to boost your dopamine levels. Just getting started can go a long way.

Peer edited by David Abraham.

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PhDepression: Practical Ways to Start New Habits

The new year is a new horizon full of possibilities and potential. While the clean slate can seem daunting to some, to others it represents an opportunity to commit themselves to something new. Although these New Year’s resolutions are good, they are often not very sustainable (we all know you can’t completely cut pizza out of your diet!). Instead of setting yourself up for failure with goals that you have probably already forgotten, it may be better to instead focus on beginning new habits. With all of the uncertain twists and turns of graduate school, one of the most important habits to establish is a plan to evaluate your mental health.

Recently, Nature Biotechnology published an article that shocked academia. Nature Biotechnology reported that almost 40% of all graduate students, not just graduate students in the sciences, had symptoms of depression and anxiety. When you think about the many pressures of graduate school (funding, interaction with bosses, long hours) it’s not a huge surprise that students suffer from anxiety and depression.What is surprising is how little is being done about the high levels of anxiety and depression in graduate students.

UNC’s own graduate student, Susanna Harris, created the Instagram page PhDepression to not only draw attention to the lack of support for those in graduate school dealing with mental health crises, but to also provide a safe space for those people who are dealing with mental health issues. I sat down with her to have a conversation about some practical ways to start new habits and take care of your mental health. The first step to begin a mental health journey is recognizing that a problem exists and then making the decision to address the problem. From here you can choose to find resources to help and work to change thought patterns. Finally, most of the work comes from actively maintaining those behaviors.

Perform a mental health evaluation: Once you recognize that a problem exists Susanna recommends determining where you are in your mental health journey. This may sound daunting, but it just involves taking online surveys that ask questions like “How often are you sleeping through the night? and “How often do you feel anxious?”. It can be a productive way to stop and think if you are stressed or depressed and some potential reasons why. Once you know some of your stress triggers, you can think about how to avoid those triggers or how to deal with them in a way that is less mentally jarring.

Find an accountability partner: If you decide to address a mental health issue in your life, find an accountability partner to open up to. Often, people are not quick to share if they’re anxious or depressed because they fear judgment or do not realize they need help. One of the hallmarks of both anxiety and depression is isolation. While isolation may feel good in the moment, it can lead to negative self-talk, an inability to determine what is true and an overall feeling of helplessness. It is very important to have a person or group of people to whom you can talk and from whom you can seek support. These people can also encourage you and walk alongside you. PhDepression has a Facebook support group called GRAD that you can get involved with to talk with others who are struggling and find encouragement. As always, it is important to find someone who understands your struggles but can also help you make positive steps forward.

Develop some tools to combat anxiety/depression: Gathering a list of resources is extremely helpful to begin managing your mental health and one of the first resources you need to prioritize is time! If you are not prioritizing time for yourself to decompress, then you will not be an effective grad student/friend/spouse/etc because burn-out is lurking behind the next corner. It’s easy to put yourself on the backburner, especially during graduate school when it seems like there’s so many other important things that clamor for your attention. Doing something you love will help you switch off your science brain so that you can be aware and excited to get back to science. It is not selfish to take the time to refill your ‘you’ tank. Calling activities self-care makes them easy to put off. Instead, think of your hobbies/activities as necessary life tools that you need to prioritize and set aside time for. Your friends/family/significant others will thank you for it and you will be a more well-balanced graduate student.

Write a letter to your future self: One way to work to change your thought patterns is to write a letter to your future stressed self speaking the truth that your balanced, relaxed self knows. Doubt and negative self-talk happen during those times of stress, uncertainty and pressure. Reading a letter and getting a reality check from your past self can be the kind of support you need to get back up on your feet and try again.  

Making a plan for your mental health can seem daunting but can produce lasting results in your life by helping you manage your anxiety/depression. The plan is a great place to start but ultimately you have to actively maintain the new behaviors you’re learning and persevere through the hard times. PhDepression has great resources and encouragement on their Instagram page to help you as you begin your journey!

Peer edited by Kaylee Helfrich.

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