There weren't many avenues for early-career researchers to be trained in the fundamentals of science communication when Elyse Aurbach and Katie Prater started their graduate careers at the University of Michigan. Then in 2013, these then U-M Neuroscience PhD students won the Community Choice award in the National Science Foundation's “Innovation in Graduate Education” competition. Their award-winning idea was to start an intensive 6–10 week workshop that would support students as they gained skills in communicating about science to a broader community—a “lay audience.”
Aurbach, PhD in hand, is now the Public Engagement Lead for the U-M Center for Academic Innovation. She explained how their idea came to life. “Katie and I were labmates, and had talked about wanting to improve our science communication skills since the time we matriculated to the program… But there weren’t any options to train us that were specific to communicating to a lay audience.” Tapping into a need that wasn’t being fulfilled at that time, their initial program gathered significant interest from fellow early-career scientists along with faculty and staff members across many departments in the university. Their first cohort in 2014 had nearly 40 applicants; 5 participants were chemistry graduate students. Since then, over a dozen participants have been from the Department of Chemistry.
That original program has now grown into RELATE, Researchers Expanding Lay-Audience Teaching and Engagement. It is a completely volunteer-run program. The University of Michigan Rackham Graduate School provides funding of space and equipment rentals. As of 2021, RELATE has trained hundreds of graduate students and early career researchers by combining pedagogy with practice. The summer program consists of 8–10 weekly sessions, with each class focusing on a specific communication skill. Topics include designing visual aids, using metaphors, and avoiding jargon. After some training, scientists then use their communication skills in a 5–10 minute oral presentation.
The program culminates with participants giving a short talk about a scientific topic to a non-scientific community. “Nerd Nites'' or “Science by the Pint” events at local bars or coffee shops featured the scientists live with the option to give a virtual presentation through RELATE’s YouTube channel. Like so many things in 2020, RELATE that year was conducted completely virtually, with the sessions and team-building activities taking place over Zoom, and with all participants giving their final presentations via YouTube.
In addition to the intensive, flagship summer curriculum, RELATE also hosts shorter-term workshops to a wider variety of University of Michigan science communicators. These workshops introduce faculty, staff, graduate students, and undergraduates to the fundamentals of science communication. These workshops have served more than 2000 individuals and equipped them with the basic skills to communicate about their research.
One U-M Chemistry-affiliated RELATE summer curriculum alumni is Dr. Isabel Colón-Bernal, who earned her PhD in 2019 under Dr. Mark Banazsak Holl. She participated in the 2018 RELATE program and later joined the coordinating committee as an organizer and teacher. Colón-Bernal now uses her written and verbal communication skills in her day-to-day job as a contractor, performing digital content management at Thermo-Fisher Scientific. While the skills taught in RELATE focus mainly on oral presentation, she has easily translated them to other aspects of communication to benefit her career. “Learning how to get my message across concisely has been so important,” she said. She says that participating in RELATE gave her an opportunity to expand her communication comfort zone. “We can make our research fun and relatable to real life… There is always a way that you can spice it up or simplify it to make your audience understand a little bit better.”
Emily Mueller, a 2019 RELATE alum and current co-coordinator on the RELATE leadership team, is a fifth-year Chemistry PhD Candidate in the McNeil Lab. As chemists, it’s extremely important to gain science communication skills to convey the importance of the work, she says. “There’s the negative perceptions of chemistry and ‘chemicals’ in the public eye… or people remember that one chemistry class that they took was really hard. Chemists do a lot of really important and fundamental work by understanding things on a molecular level, and so I think it’s really important for us to be able to communicate the value and the benefits of this work to society.”
After participating in RELATE and giving a Nerd Nite talk at a local bar to both scientists and community members, Mueller wanted to join the organizing team to help RELATE run smoothly. One important part of her role was assisting with the transition from an in-person to virtual format due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The coordinating team thought that the highly interactive nature of RELATE might be difficult to translate over web conferencing. However, Mueller said that “a really nice benefit of this virtual format is that we aren’t confined by physical limitations, like the space of how many people we can have in a room on campus. Last year, we had a larger cohort than we ever had previously!”
Two 2020 RELATE virtual participants are third-year Chemistry PhD candidates, Claire Cook (Bailey lab) and Lirong Shi (Chen lab.) Despite the change in format, to all virtual they both gained essential skills in communication by participating in RELATE. Cook, who works on developing microfluidic tools to improve epigenetic tests, says “I’ve always been interested in teaching, and I wanted to improve my skills to be able to communicate what I do.” After participating in RELATE and making a video about her research, Cook joined the coordinating team. “I just got more passionate about the idea of scientists really being able to be equipped with tools to effectively communicate whatever they’re doing, and why a broader audience should care about it.”
Shi, who studies surface chemistry and spectroscopy, says that “ultimately, science serves the public good… [we want] to help people understand what we are doing and build trust between scientists and the public.” The YouTube video that Shi made as part of RELATE was the first video she ever made so she says that this experience was highly rewarding. It helped her to visualize her research and make it more accessible to the public, she says.
Mueller notes that this experience not only improved her ability to talk about her research to those outside of the science community, but also improved her scientific presentation skills. Colón-Bernal shared the same sentiment, having participated in the RELATE curriculum the summer before her final year of her PhD, she explains that it was extremely helpful in framing her narrative for her dissertation defense. “We all want to tell our story [of our PhD] in chronological order and that’s not always the best way to do it… Finding a more appropriative narrative for your thesis is so important.”
Participating in the RELATE summer curriculum is a sizable commitment but Cook explained that the investment in one’s communication skills is certainly worth the time. “The overarching thing for me is that if you can’t communicate what you’ve done, there’s really no point,” she says, adding that “I think everyone could probably benefit from having more of a framework for how to think about communicating to people from various audiences.”
Co-founder Elyse Aurbach says, “RELATE was the single best thing I did in graduate school... This pivotal professional development experience showed me that fostering an interdisciplinary community can be transformational.”
If you’d like to learn more about RELATE, you can find them on their website or on twitter. Additionally, their YouTube channel holds the most recent final projects by participants. The summer 2021 workshop series will be taking place virtually. If you are interested in participating, look out for their application, which will be posted on the website and social media in early summer.
RELATE twitter: @RELATEatUM