Genetics course helps budding scholars explain their work to the public
The students in Gary Heiman's class are genetics majors who've already faced their share of academic challenges.
They've taken rigorous lectures and labs, conducted their own research, and gained a confident command of concepts like mitosis, meiosis, and mutations.
But in Heiman's "Effective Communication Skills in Genetics" course, these juniors and seniors face an altogether different challenge: making their research accessible and understandable to the rest of the world.
And, as Heiman told them, the "public" includes everyone: policy-makers, journalists, and fellow scientists. Even grandparents!
"I tell my students that it doesn't matter how good their research is; if people can't understand it, it's not going to go anywhere," said Heiman, a professor in the Department of Genetics in the School of Arts and Sciences. "You have to be able to communicate your work to the public and to the scientific community, or else it's lost."
Heiman's emphasis on clear expression of ideas struck a chord with students in a recent class, and stretched their skills. For one assignment, he told them to rewrite the introduction to their research project with this caveat: Make it three to five sentences, and use language that a grandparent could understand.
"I had to step back and think about that one for a bit," says senior Daniel Ilg, whose research involved testing a strain of antibiotics as a genetic marker in tobacco. "But ultimately it was a very important experience that helped me grow as a scientist."
Heiman developed the class several years ago, expanding a one-credit seminar into what is now a three-credit course required for most genetics majors. Heiman teaches the course every spring semester, while genetics professor Jinchuan Xing handles the fall semester. Both professors are continuing to develop the course content to keep pace with rapidly changing communications technologies.
Indeed, the course is being taught at a time when communication, in general, has become a much-discussed issue in the science community. Some fear that a communication gap between scientists and the public could affect support for research and hinder citizen engagement with critical policy issues such as climate change, vaccinations, and evolution.
"Public understanding and support of science and technology have never been more important, but also never more tenuous," Alan I. Leshner, former CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in an article in Science. "Today they are embedded in an increasingly politicized environment where ethical, legal, and social implications are emerging at a rate that seems to be outpacing society's capacity to make sense of the science."
With its emphasis on clear and concise writing, public presentation, and poster design, Heiman's course is particularly well-suited to genetics majors, who are required to conduct research during their undergraduate years and typically set their sights on careers in medicine, research, and education.
"This course gives us a competitive advantage over students from other research universities," declared Amanda Devolk, a senior who's planning to get her Ph.D. in genetics and go into pharmaceutical research and development. "Not only are we getting this great research experience, we're learning how to translate it so people can understand why the science is important."
Ilg, who wants to become a genetic counselor, agreed.
"I learned how to convey sophisticated genetic ideas without getting too technical," he said. "If you're a genetic counselor, and you're talking to families and individuals about what's going on with their genetics, that's an incredibly vital skill to have."
Students whose career plans aren't necessarily focused on genetics also described the course as essential.
"What we're learning is useful in any field," said Valeriya Gershteyn, a senior planning to attend medical school. "As a doctor, for example, I would need to be able to communicate with patients and make presentations."
During the course, students' research projects—which are typically launched a semester earlier—become the raw material for the writing section. Their work is put through successive cycles of edits and rewrites, with all students participating in the editing process.
Xing recalled one student thinking he had already composed the perfect introduction for his research project.
"He had all the elements in there, but it was very scrambled," Xing said. "After one round of edits, he took a look said "I don't want to show (the first draft) to anyone anymore!
"The point is, the exercise helped him learn. He became a better writer, and a better scientist."
In one recent class, the emphasis shifted to oral presentation, with Heiman providing friendly but thorough feedback on elements like the readability of students' visual displays, their eye contact, and the length of their lecture.
He told one student that she seemed more relaxed when she spoke directly to the class without looking at her notes.
"I think you're ready to let go of the papers," he said. "It takes some time. But if you slowly cut back, you may be surprised at how confident you get."