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developmental and stem cell biologists

It’s all about communication

Posted by , on 28 July 2023

Reflections from the 82nd SDB Annual Meeting

Attending the Society for Developmental Biology (SDB) Annual Meeting this July for the first time, I was blown away by the wide variety of approaches and model organisms employed to unravel all the fascinating questions in developmental biology.

As a developmental biologist by training who has been working in science communication for the past few years, it’s hard for me not to notice a common theme throughout the conference — communication, be it researcher-facing or public-facing. Science communication comes in many shapes and forms, and this SDB meeting demonstrated the importance of communicating clearly and accurately to different audiences about the exciting research happening in a field that is close to all our hearts.

Celebrating early-career science communicators

The nature of a conference is talks, lots of them. How does one convey the essence of their research and condense years of work down to 15 minutes? The SDB meeting was full of engaging speakers from different career stages, but a standout was Bonnie Kircher, who took home the Best Postdoc Presentation Award. Bonnie captivated the audience with her talk about female reproductive organ anatomy in the brown anole.

Another award given out each year by the SDB is the Science Communication Award. This year’s award recipient is Kevin Thiessen, the person behind the popular Twitter account @ZebrafishRock. We interviewed Kevin back in 2021 to find out more about him and ZebrafishRock. In his award talk at the meeting, Kevin revealed the reason behind the name ‘ZebrafishRock’ (hint: not the musical genre, but the Zebrafish inner ear structure), introduced the information ZebrafishRock puts out, and stressed the significance of supporting model organism databases (a shoutout to ZFIN — read their ‘Featured resource’ post).

As the Community Manager of the Node, Kevin’s talk made me think about how the Node can learn from ZebrafishRock’s success in community building. Could we do more in terms of highlighting early-career researchers and their work? Any thoughts or suggestions welcome in the comments below!

If you are an early-career researcher interested in science communications, do check out SDB’s SciComm Internship program.

Becoming a better writer: #DevBiolWriteClub workshop

To complement the scientific talks, the meeting also featured a few workshops, including a ‘Communication Workshop’ led by John Wallingford (Professor at University of Texas at Austin) and Pamela Hines (former Senior Editor at Science Magazine).

Through highly interactive and engaging activities, John and Pam took the participants through the questions of ‘what’ and ‘how’ to write as a scientist and provided an abundance of practical tips to become a better writer. From the five rules of #DevBioWriteClub to book recommendations about science writing, most of what John said during the workshop can be found on the Node. Head over to John’s author page to see a list of his #DevBiolWriteClub posts.

As I’m writing this post, I’m very self-conscious about you, the reader, judging this piece of writing, but as John said, there’s no shortcut — it’s all about practise, practise, practise. Let’s get writing and start using the hashtag #DevBiolWriteClub!

SciComm is not just about writing

A wonderful feature at the SDB meeting was the lunchtime theme tables, which allowed people to connect and talk about topics ranging from mentoring, grant writing, to managing a scientific career with disability.

One of the theme tables was on the topic of ‘Communications as an alternative career’. The table facilitator was Ana Beiriger, a scientist and medical illustrator, who communicates science through graphic design, illustration, animation, and 3D modeling. The table included PhD students and postdocs interested in SciComm, as well as Marsha Lucas, the Publications and Communications Director of SDB. Throughout the hour, we discussed the different approaches and pathways to a SciComm career, and the pros and cons of freelancing versus working for a company. Watch out for a SciArt post about Ana on the Node soon, but in the meantime, check out other scientists making amazing SciArt work.

Ethical issues special symposium: talking to the public about our research

It’s all well and good that we talk about our exciting findings to fellow scientists, but scientific research does not exist in a silo. With technology advancing rapidly and guidelines changing accordingly, how do we convey our exciting research to the public without overhyping and allowing the story to spiral out of control in the news? How do we keep the public’s expectations realistic? How can we use our research to inform and influence policies?

These are among the many questions raised during the special symposium on ethical issues in developmental biology research. With research continuing to push the boundaries of what is possible, it is vital that scientists put more thought into communicating our research to different audiences. A few suggestions by the panel include providing more media training for scientists and working with mediators from trusted organisations such as science museums.

A summary of the talks and discussion from the panel, which included viewpoints from bioethics, medicine and basic science, can be found in this Twitter thread (click on link to expand the thread).

Final thoughts

At the end of her Conklin Medal award talk, Lila Solnica-Krezel stated, “we are all ambassadors for developmental biology.” Indeed, it is up to us to talk about our research responsibly and spread our excitement for this field to others.

To the developmental biology community, how do you approach talking about your research to different audiences? Do you know any developmental biologists who are doing great things in science communication?

Comment below!

Taken on a morning run along the Chicago lakefront, with a group of fellow conference attendees. Thanks for the company!
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Categories: Meeting Reports, Research

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