By Eric Sorensen, WSU News

Alli Coffin just wanted to do well on her thesis defense.

So when her mom invited her to a meeting of Toastmasters International, the communications and leadership nonprofit, she went. But while the meeting was the beginning of learning how to speak to a room of strangers, it also set her on a path in which communication took on an ever greater role in her career as a neuroscientist. Now the WSU Vancouver assistant professor is leading her second conference on the subject, Science Talk ’18 this March 1 and 2 at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. She will also lead a research communication workshop in Pullman next week.

“Science touches everyone, whether they realize it or not,” says Coffin, who specializes in how fish sense their environment, particularly how they hear. “But a lot of people don’t appreciate why science is important or how it affects them. I’m not saying that everyone needs to love science, but I think to have an educated public, one that can participate in important civic and policy decisions, it’s critical for people to appreciate the role of science and technology in those decisions.”

After her first exposure to Toastmasters, Coffin assumed the presidency of a club in Maryland and put on workshops for local business groups. From there, she started teaching science communications at universities.

She acknowledges that the pursuit has its challenges. It can be hard to catch the attention of non-scientists, then “work with them, not just talk at them.” It’s hard for scientists to get out of their own world of labs and field sites. It’s also hard to bring policy makers, a key audience, into the world of science.

“Some legislators aren’t interested in the science if it contradicts their beliefs,” she says,
“but others want to base decisions on sound science. They just don’t have the background to find and understand the relevant scientific information.”

Still, she said, “If scientists don’t want to talk to policy makers, it’s not the policy makers’ fault if they don’t use our science to make decisions.”

At the outset, says Coffin, scientists need to convey the passion they have for their field, not just the logic of their method and findings.

“Logic is great for puzzling through complicated data, but logic alone makes for a boring presentation,” she says. “Let people see your excitement, and they will get excited too.”

She also stresses going to the audience and speaking in its terms and interests—what they as non-scientists care about.

Two years ago, Coffin was talking over coffee with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife researcher when they thought to somehow bring together other Portland-area researchers interested in science communication. “’Science Talk’ was born that day,” she says. The inaugural conference quickly sold out 250 seats in the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, drawing a dynamic mix of academic, government, non-profit and journalism attendees.

One of them, WSU Spokane doctoral student Panshak Dakup, took second place in a science communication contest for students. He went on to win last year’s Three Minute Thesis competition at WSU.

This year’s conference will have room for 500 attendees and be centered on professional development, personal growth and networking. It will feature workshops on practical topics such as preparing for media interviews, using social media to reach non-science audiences, and displaying complex information graphically.

“Scientists will also learn improv theater techniques that will better prepare them for working with any audience, and will meet other enthusiastic science communicators who can support them as they continue improving their skills,” Coffin says.

The Office of Research is providing registration and travel support to eight faculty members who want to attend Science Talk. They are encouraged to express an interest by writing Emily Brashear at res.dev@wsu.edu by Jan. 31.

“Communicating scientific ideas is an important skill for professional scientists – be it for teaching undergraduate students or communicating ideas in proposals to obtain research funding or presenting research findings to lay audiences,” says Geeta Dutta, director of the Office of Research Advancement and Partnerships. “Unfortunately, most scientists are not trained in effective communication skills. We want to give our faculty a leg up by providing them opportunities to improve their science communication skills.”

Coffin will also be on the Pullman campus Friday, Feb. 2, to lead two free workshop sessions on improving research communication skills, from eliminating jargon to creating compelling presentations. The workshops are open to all WSU researchers and communications staff, but space is limited, so would-be attendees are encouraged to register soon at https://economicdevelopment.wsu.edu/researchers/efa/events/.