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Science meets journalism
1 September 2011

Post Grad Seminar

Who would have thought that scientists and journalists develop and require the same skills, such as asking the right questions, thinking systematically, and problem solving, we are both intelligent, curious, observant and need to create a logical flow in the final piece, whether it is a thesis, publication or story. This was a profound realization for those of us postgraduate students who attended the Science Communication Workshop held on Monday, 8 August. It was organized by the Science Postgraduate Students Association (SPGSA) in conjunction with the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA), the Public Understanding of Biotechnology (PUB) and facilitated by the award winning Science Journalist, Adele Baleta.

As scientists, so many of us are passionate about our work and want to share it with those around us, but often we are met with the "glazed eyes look" when we even try to begin to explain what it is we do. Scientists are often wary of journalists too, as we feel they might not understand what we do and therefore give an inaccurate report. We feel journalists want "breakthroughs" on an everyday basis, which as we know in the Science world, is far from the reality, and we therefore shy away from talking about our work. However, in order to maximize the impact and benefits of the research that we are all doing, it is absolutely essential that we learn to effectively communicate our work to our peers and colleagues, our friends and family, and the media and general public at large.

Adele Baleta took us through a one day course in order to get us to challenge the stereotypes that scientists may have about journalists, and journalists may have about scientists. We realized this was vital so that we can both work together to successfully create a public awareness of the importance of Science research and therefore tackle misconceptions and doubts that the public have, which in actual fact stem from fear and ignorance.

One of the most useful exercises that we did on the course was to learn how to convey our own research in lay manís terms. We learnt to identify the misapprehensions that the public may have about our work, whether it was working on genetically modified organisms, the Square Kilometer Array project, vaccines, tuberculosis or penguins, and subsequently outline key messages that we wanted to get across. These had to be short and to the point, and above all jargon free, which was the most challenging part. This is mostly because as Scientists, we become so comfortable with the terminology required in our respective fields, that we forget that most of the public has no idea what we are talking about. However, Adele Baleta emphasized that we do not need to "dumb down" our work, but rather it is about "dressing it up" and using metaphors and analogies, something which is rather a taboo to us in Science writing.

After an extremely valuable and concentrated day, I not only met some highly intelligent, emerging Scientists and learnt more about what goes on in our Science faculty, but we also all realized and appreciated the necessity to learn to effectively communicate our research. Not only is it beneficial to us in order to establish collaborations amongst colleagues and effectively secure funding, but it is our responsibility to the general public to create an awareness of what goes on in our laboratories and out in the field.

View pictures of the event.

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