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Graduate Education: With Sea Grant’s help, student learns value of science communication

By Chris Patrick, staff writer, Virginia Sea Grant

Even though Bianca Santos says “people love turtles,” she has a hard time talking about her research modeling sea turtle strandings in Chesapeake Bay with the public.

“When I say modeling, people zone out,” says Santos, Virginia Institute of Marine Science graduate student.

But she believes it’s important to teach the public about her work, especially because more and more turtles are getting stranded onshore and “a lot of people don’t even know there are sea turtles in the Bay.”

Always seeking opportunities to improve her ability to share her research with the public, Santos took an Advanced Science Communication Seminar led by Virginia Sea Grant (VASG) and George Mason University communicators. The seminar challenged graduate student scientists to develop a communication tool to help them explain their research to a specific audience. Santos designed an infographic as a fun, colorful way to introduce her research to coastal Virginians.

Although intended for those outside of the research community, Santos’ infographic caught the eye of a scientist. A. Alonso Aguirre, associate professor of environmental science and policy at Mason, thought Santos’ infographic was such an effective example of science communication he presented it to his marine ecology class.

He believes it’s important for his students and other scientists to learn how to share their research with the public.

“Most publications in journals don’t go anywhere,” he says. “We’re lucky if they’re in the news. So scientists need to learn how to translate our publications’ messages for the public if we want to see changes in mindset or laws.”

Aguirre asked his students to make their own Santos-inspired infographics for extra credit.

“It’s really cool,” Santos says. “I wasn’t expecting that when I made it.” She was one of 10 students participating in the Advanced Science Communication Seminar, a four-month course that ran from October 2015 to January 2016.

The seminar’s purpose was to teach marine science graduate students how to communicate their research with the public. It was led by Katherine Rowan and Karen Akerlof, two communication professors at Mason, as well as Janet Krenn, VASG’s former assistant director of communications.

The students presented final versions of their work during a poster session at VASG’s Project Participants’ Symposium. Some students, like Santos, made infographics about their work. Other student projects included blogs about microbe research and games about fish biodiversity for elementary school students.

Mason hopes to continue training early-career scientists like Santos to communicate with the public about their research by offering another Advanced Science Communication Seminar in the 2016-2017 academic year.

“The graduate students in the seminar had terrific ideas about how to share marine science with stakeholders,” Rowan says. “And we instructors had a great time learning about their goals and thinking with them about how to reach their audiences. I look forward to working with the participants in the 2016 seminar.”

See full-size versions of Santos’ infographic here and here.

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