One of the truly sad parts about academia and science is that as you go deeper and deeper into a subject, the circle of people who speak your default language shrinks. Academic siloes are real, and they prevent many scientists from taking a broader perspective of their work and communicating to those without a research background.
I’ve always wanted to push back against this. As you probably know from this site, I prefer plain language. I’ll use technical details when necessary, but we can go a long way to convey scientific ideas without them. Much like you can enjoy the emotional pull of a piece of music without knowing the intricacies in creating the piece, you can enjoy science without being an expert.
That’s why I applied to ComSciCon.
The premise is simple enough: Bring together graduate students who are passionate about communicating science to all sorts of people.
Communicating science is a skill, but one that many scientists don’t train throughout their careers. ComSciCon addresses this gap. It’s a three-day workshop with plenty of panels, projects, and group interactions.
Since I’m a COVID-19 PhD student, this was the first in-person event I have ever attended (and only my second overall). I was both excited and nervous. Excited, because these were the people who, like me, loved to share science. Nervous, because I wasn’t sure if I was “good enough” to be a science communicator (I had applied in 2020 but didn’t get in). Thankfully, it seemed like continuing my webcomic for two more years showed I was serious about building consistency in my science communication work!
ComSciCon happens each year at MIT, and though the organization behind the event is volunteer-run, they have sponsors which cover almost all of the costs. Food, lodging, and travel are all part of the deal (at least, mostly), and I think this makes for a much better workshop, since anyone can feel free to apply. I know that in my own case, I would have hesitated if there was a registration fee and costs for housing. This way, I was much more comfortable with attending.
There were two main components to the workshop: presentations/panels and projects. In the 2022 edition, there were presentations on accessibility and diversity in science communication, how to talk about controversial topics, policy, misinformation, leaving academia to pursue science communication, and careers in science communication. If you want to get the short version of these presentations, I highly recommend checking out Callie Chappell’s tweets during August 4-6 2022 such as this one. She was one of the participants, and her art is amazing.
I found the presentations to be great, and there was a lot of interaction between us (the audience) and the presenters. That had a lot to do with the great people who were part of the program as much as the presenters themselves. Many more questions and discussions than I’m used to seeing in academia!
The second part of the workshop had to do with projects, which we began working on during the summer. Each participant creates a piece and then works in peer groups (along with some experience science communicators) to improve it. The eventual goal is to publish these pieces in various outlets, giving each attendee something they can add to their portfolio.
As someone whose writing experiences consists mainly of this blog (with nobody reading my drafts), I appreciated the mechanism of peer review in helping me shape my piece. My group caught elements that I hadn’t noticed, prodded me to give more detail in some directions versus others, and also provided a level of support that I didn’t realize would be so valuable. It’s easy to think this was all about constructive criticism, but there were many times where I got feedback like, “I totally relate to this part!” or “This sentence is great.” These help build confidence that my piece is on the right track. For someone who just puts his writing out into the world and often doesn’t know how it lands, this was a nice change.
If you’ve read some of my other writing on different programs I’ve attended over the years, you’ll know my view is that the people I get to meet and connect with is the most important part. This time was no different.
Have you ever joined a group of people who just gets what you like? If so, then you’re familiar with the feeling I experienced at ComSciCon. Even though there were few people as deep into computer science, mathematics, and quantum physics as I am, I could feel the energy for communicating science. Everyone was excited about sharing their experiences and knowledge in science, and it was a joy to see. I found it immensely rewarding. We all shared this common interest of sharing science to everyone, and this allowed me to connect with a bunch of people whose work I may otherwise not have looked into.
From my perspective, everyone was friendly and welcoming. There was a huge range of experience within science communication, from those with little experience (like myself) to those with many years of service. But everyone was kind in sharing themselves and I really appreciated that.
As an introvert, I get overwhelmed with meeting so many new people at once. I felt that here too, but with the common ground of science communication, I was able to have conversations with many of the participants (sadly, I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to get to know everyone within the three days). Though science was our first point of connection, the best part was in learning about the other as people.
The experience at ComSciCon was much like my experience at PSI: I truly felt like I was part of a cohort. That’s a special thing, and it’s what I look for in new experiences.
What I Learned
There’s a whole wide world of science out there. I’ve spent basically my whole time in science within physics, mathematics, and computer science. Don’t get me wrong: I love these areas, and they are home to many fascinating topics. But they also aren’t all of science. During the workshop, I met people who were working as social scientists, marine scientists, biologists, chemists, engineers, astronomers, geologists, neuroscientists, and so much more.
Seriously, the sheer breadth of science out there is amazing, and it made me feel as if I’ve been living in just a small corner of the scientific universe my whole life. It was so much fun to see how people use science in all sorts of ways, which I probably would never have even imagined.
I also noticed how diverse the group of attendees was. I’ve spent a lot of my life in communities and groups which were not diverse (a consequence of living in small towns and being in programs which are overrepresented by people of many of my identities). At ComSciCon, there was a much larger swath of experiences, identities, and people that were present than I was used to, which I thought was good.
It really made me think about how powerful communities can be. If you feel like your community accepts you, then you’re empowered to not hide parts of yourself, which relieves a lot of stress. On the other hand, if you feel there are people who will judge and dislike you, the automatic response is often to hide parts of yourself. That’s exhausting though, and it’s not a fun experience. In my opinion, ComSciCon was an inclusive environment.
I also learned that I wasn’t alone in my journey as a graduate student. I’ve been mulling over what I’d like to do after my PhD. I don’t feel strongly about staying within academia, but I had thought perhaps this was just me, and everyone else would surely be gearing up for postdoc positions and strategies for staying within academia. At ComSciCon, I learned this wasn’t the case at all. There were plenty of people who were just as disillusioned about academia as I was, and I found it comforting that I wasn’t alone in this feeling. It definitely makes me feel like my thoughts are more legitimate, and that I’m not alone.
ComSciCon was an intense three days of activities, and I’m still trying to absorb all of it. I met some truly wonderful people, and I hope to keep interacting with them in the future.
Short-term, my goal is to finish my piece of writing and submit it to a publication. Then, I want to keep in mind all the cool science outreach people are doing, and see if there are chances to collaborate with some of the people I met. Finally, I want to take in a lot of the lessons I learned during ComSciCon regarding accessibility and diversity. I want to improve my comics with this in mind, as well as think about how I write and what kind of audience I’m serving.
As a last note, I want to thank the volunteer graduate students who made ComSciCon 2022 happen. This was the first in-person event for them in two years, and I only just saw a glimpse of the work these volunteers put in to make the workshop happen. Honestly, I’d say the whole thing went pretty smoothly for a volunteer operation, and I would definitely do it again.
Though not right now, because I’m still recovering from an unusual amount of social interaction compared to my baseline!