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Published: 2021-05-04

Getting your research story right

NEWS Will Earth end up like Mars? What happens to your burger wrapper when you throw it away? Did you know you could 3D print a silicone brain to study neurological disorders? Can you make environmentally friendly cement? These were some of the research subjects 15 PhD students explored together and crafted into open, exciting stories in the course Communicating Scientific Research over the past few weeks.

Text: Gabrielle Beans Picón

The course aims to help PhD students explain their research to non-scientists. "Everybody's research is fascinating. But all too often, we talk about our research in ways that make it incomprehensible to our family and friends, as well as other scientists," said course instructor and Climate Impacts Research Centre Project Coordinator Keith Larson.

"What is your message?"

Students in the course start by answering this question using a tool called the ‘Message Box.’ The message box helps them outline their research, zoom out to consider the impacts, and think carefully about their target audiences. They identify the main issue, why it matters, where the problems lie, how they are working to solve those problems, and what benefits their solutions will bring.

"The message box is crucial because the students reframe it into concrete communication materials throughout the course:  a press release, a visual abstract, and finally, a two-minute video elevator pitch. We work together to identify jargon and open up their language to be more understandable with examples, analogies, and more familiar phrasings," explained course instructor Martin Rosvall, Professor at the Physics Department and IceLab.

The students are also teachers

"A key element of the course is peer feedback. We asked the students to review early versions of each other’s work and continued with regular feedback sessions for improving their material throughout the course. In the end, everyone had contributed to everyone else's work. The students really are the best audience for each other’s stories," noted course instructor Gabrielle Beans, research communicator at IceLab and deputy director of Curiosum.

The doctoral students appreciate the feedback, though it takes some getting used to. When asked for their thoughts on the course, several noted that it can be very hard, even scary, to share something incomplete, but that it was great practice.

Iterative improvements

The students gathered on Zoom with Martin Rosvall, Gabrielle Beans, and Keith Larson. This instructor team has held this course at Umeå University three times. While this was the first time remotely, many other things had changed as well.

"Every time we run this course, we experiment with the format, take in the students' feedback, and adjust for the next time. The first two times, we focused on building a personal website to present the course project elements. But we found that too much time went into web-building, and there was less focus on honing their stories. So we switched our focus to their messages and reframing them in different ways," said Gabrielle Beans.

Each student had their own motivation for taking the course and came away with a different outcome. Daniel Nilsson from the Department of Physics wanted perspective. "I can feel so disconnected from the big picture. This was an opportunity to see what my research contributes to. It gives me motivation."

What's next for the students? Sofie Björklund from the Chemistry Department will take the lessons she learned and apply them to her research talks. "I started thinking about how I'm going to change my scientific talks that I give to my peers. How do I turn my presentations into stories?"

Video pitches

The students presented their final video pitches on the last day of the course, 23 April.

Shuntaro Koizumi is a PhD student studying aquatic ecology at the Department of Ecology and Environmental Science. He took this course hoping to communicate better with people outside of his research field. For his research pitch, he went outside to his study site, where he warms up ponds to understand how climate change will affect our freshwater systems.

Shuntaro studies climate change

Shuntaro Koizumi warms up ponds to understand how climate change will affect our freshwater systems.

Sanchali Nanda is in the second year of her PhD at the Department of Plant Physiology. Her research revolves around photosynthesis and energy use in plants. In her pitch, she explains how her research could help increase food crop productivity and maybe bring about a third green revolution.

Sanchalis video pitch

Daniel Nilsson has a background in engineering physics and has always been interested in developing new technologies. Now a first-year PhD student in biophysics at the Department of Physics, he is working on creating a 'phantom brain' for studying our brains' cleaning systems and their relation to neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

Daniel creates a "phantom brain"

Daniel Nilsson uses a 3D "phantom brain" to study the brains' cleaning systems.

Read more about the course