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The SciComm Lab @ Brandeis: Iteration, The Unknown and Choosing the "Right" Battles

By Lizzie Krisch

“When students come to us, they’re already in a vulnerable position”.

I let those words sit in the air for a moment as Dr. Anique Olivier-Mason walks me through her model for developing the Brandeis University Science Communication (SciComm Lab) . It’s the second time we’ve spoken (we had met earlier at the Inclusive SciComm Conference in September 2019), and I felt drawn to learn more.

In the days following the conference, thoughts swirled in my head:

How does someone even develop a Science Communication Lab? What is the role of iteration in making sure everything “works”? How flexible is the model?

When we chatted later that week, I filled in the holes of my curiosity and asked questions till my mind felt at-ease. But first, let me provide a bit of context.

Anique developed the SciComm Lab in 2017. The SciComm Lab is a professional environment where anyone in the Brandeis scientific community can receive individual coaching or targeted workshops that support the skill development “needed to communicate the rationale, process and results of their incredible science to any audience in written, spoken or visual form.” “Clients” schedule meetings with peer-mentor or near-peer “Fellows” who are other science graduate students and postdocs in the community who are trained in coaching and science communication. These sessions can focus on a gamut of topics from papers to grants —and everything in between! One surprising rule is that Fellows are not permitted to read papers prior to sessions. Anique schedules personal and group meetings with her Fellows through-out the semester, and a focus is made on supporting students to pursue science—just don’t expect any copy-editing!

But, how did Anique get to this point? Well, it all began with a small program she piloted called, “Science Big Siblings.” She matched summer undergraduate research students with graduate students in an effort to connect individuals over shared interests in science. While this program had valuable pieces (such as: peer-mentoring, networking and community building), the model was not sustainable in the long-term due to its limited and temporary funding. However, at the time, Anique was wholly unaware that she was laying the foundation for something much greater: The SciComm Lab. Born out of Science Big Siblings (and a desire to create something that was sustainable, successful and influential!), Anique attended the MIT Communication Lab Summer Institute, and immediately recognized a successful paradigm and an opportunity to customize details to fit the needs of Brandeis.

While the MIT Communications Lab was predicated on the desire to teach engineers how to communicate, Anique began crafting ways to individualize the program to fit her mission: Create a space for mentorship that empowers scientists, particularly those in underrepresented groups, to remain emboldened and confident in science.

Simple, right? Not quite! However, with a couple of core tenets (and sobering realizations!), Anique was able to develop a backbone for the SciComm Lab:

  1. SciComm Lab Fellows need to be prepared to be unprepared in some sessions.
  • Training helps prepare Fellows to improvise and handle unexpected scicomm challenges that come up in sessions. Sometimes, it’s more important to get things started than it is to wait until everything is perfectly in order. Also, there’s no substitution for actually doing the task. Mapping things out only goes so far, and sometimes you just need to take a leap of faith.
  • This also requires a lot of ex post facto revision! If you push something out that is dependent on test runs, pilots and revision, you have to be prepared to spend x amount of days, weeks and months revising your model to continue to fit your vision.
  1. SciComm Lab Fellows prioritize the person over the document. Sentence-level editing is important, but it is also a risk: it has the potential to shift an empowering situation into one that can push people away from science. Consistently remembering the mission of the SciComm Lab is critical to avoid shifting focus, objectives and outcomes.

As I sit here, in front of my computer screen, I find myself circling back to this initial idea:

“When students come to us, they’re already in a vulnerable position”.

I remember a string of words that Anique said in our phone conversation, and they echo through my mind:

If the focus of the SciComm Lab is about the document, people will be diminished.

I think back to moments of personal vulnerability. Times where I struggled with a different scientific concept. Or, times when I couldn’t find the right words to execute an idea that lived so clearly in my mind. I think of what sort of person could have— or should have— made me hopeful in those moments. I think of those who made me feel worse. And, most of all, I realize how impactful these seemingly fleeting moments truly are.

  1. SciComm Lab fellows need to strive for consistency in fellows, even if this means limiting creativity in mentorship.
  • Clients want a predictable experience in a session, so training was developed to normalize what happens during a SciComm Lab session.
    • It is somewhat unavoidable to have variations between fellows. Some will naturally be better (more approachable, personable or even helpful!) than others. But, it is the job of management to help all Fellows rise to their full potential.
  • Part of this includes peer-to-peer training where individuals are trained by experienced Fellows. Additionally, Fellows participate in an apprenticeship where they are expected to put themselves “in the shoes” of a SciComm Lab client, and receive feedback from a Fellow. This forces new Fellows to experience the vulnerability, and potential discomfort of discussing work in a critical fashion. Putting the new hires in this dynamic is important for them to understand where their client is coming from, and to approach forthcoming interactions with compassion and thoughtfulness.
  1. SciComm Lab Fellows normalize feedback and failure.
  • Empowerment is not only for the client, but also for the fellows! Switching from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset is critical to create an environment where fellows are both receptive to feedback and appreciative of it!

So, in short (sort of, sorry!) . . . Yes, you can create a SciComm Lab. Yes, it’ll be slightly terrifying (Caution: if you have “type-A” tendencies…like myself.., this may be especially difficult!). And, yes, this has the power to embolden and empower vulnerable students. So, if you’re interested and unsure of where to start—start with a mission, a healthy degree of skepticism, and the realization that you could transform science for someone.  And, stay receptive to feedback, iteration and… open to the unknown! After all, every effort has to begin somewhere! Interested in hearing more and/or reading testimonials? Check out the official SciComm Lab website!

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