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Japan SciCom Forum 2023 – an apprentice science writer finding a place to belong

Posted by , on 19 December 2023

In my previous article, I discussed the importance of joining communities and finding your crowd. Following my own advice, I have joined the Japan SciComm Forum, the community for English-speaking science communicators in Japan. It is a warm and welcoming community with professional and aspiring science communicators. The community meetings happen once every two months with two speakers (one from Japan and one from abroad) presenting on a wide variety of topics. Some of the ones I attended included how to make science accessible for people of all abilities and the place of AI in science communication. If you are a science communicator from Japan, professional, or just interested in communicating your research, you can join here.

Japan SciComm Forum Conference: overview

One of the events I was looking forward to during this year was the Japan SciComm Forum Conference. You can check out the schedule and speakers here. By the way, you can find YouTube videos from past events there, too. This year’s conference was held in the beautiful Okinawa at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, one of Japan’s most international research centers I know of. I waited for this event both because I wanted to visit Okinawa once again and because it was my first in-person conference in four years. The conference lasted for two days. On the first day, we had a keynote speaker, flash presentations, a workshop, and a networking event in the evening. We had a panel discussion and a second workshop on the second day.

Why do organizations need communication teams?

This year’s keynote speaker was Ali Bailey, Director of Communications and Public Engagement at Francis Crick Institute. The institute has a versatile outreach program and not only shares its research with the scientific community but is also involved in educational programs and engagement with the non-scientific community. It also provides training for scientists to communicate their research. You may have read (and if not, you should!) Alexandra Bisia’s post about Francis Crick’s Cut + Paste exhibition. Ali Bailey’s talk was dedicated to the importance of science communication professionals. Professional science communicators are often met with a question:

Why do organizations or institutes need communication teams?

After all, people do communicate on a daily basis, what can be so difficult that it would require a communication team? And Ali Bailey shared one of her favourite answers:

Even though everyone has a bank account, organizations do prefer to have a professional financial team.

She then shared her career path and especially “the bad day in the office” experiences. I always admire people who share their mistakes. It is inspiring how people turn their mistakes into lessons. Her talk brought a beautiful message that science communication is a craft that requires time and perfection of skillset, not something you will be able to do overnight. I think that although obvious, it is an important reminder, as too often, I see that technological progress gives people the illusion that you can replace experience with automation. Although technology can make different processes more efficient, I also think knowing what you are doing is important to get a worthy result. 

Using podcasts for science communication 

After the keynote speaker, we had a workshop. There were two options, from which I chose “The Art and Science of Communicating Research through Podcasting” by Andrew MacIntosh, Associate Professor, Kyoto University (check his podcast here; he was lucky enough to interview Jane Goodall at some point!). I discovered podcasting some years ago, but I got into it only recently. As a person for whom talking is the main way to develop ideas, evaluate reality, and find solutions to problems, I have always wanted to try podcasting. There is something so simple and so mysterious about talking with people. Even when you think you know a person, talking to them often brings surprises. The logic or opinions you never thought could coexist. And if we are talking about a fluid and controversial topic such as science, podcasting seems like a natural way to deal with it. The workshop was really lightning speed. We had just enough time to listen to the basics and then develop and record the intro to a model podcast. It was a lot of fun! So, I hope to use these skills to do some science podcasting one day.

Flash talks: Sci-fi and STEM escape rooms

Flash talks at scientific conferences are always controversial to me. I see why they are there, but I am not sure they actually help. Risking stating the obvious, communicators are good at communicating😉, so their flash talks were informative and engaging despite the short time. I will share two of my favorite ones. The first was about using sci-fi to explain complex scientific ideas by Aileen Cooney, PhD Student at Tokyo Tech / Imperial College London. This inspired me to take “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” from a bookshelf. For some reason, I never thought of sci-fi in that way. I thought of it as a kind of creative outlet from scientist to scientist, or at least people interested in science. The idea that we can use our imagination to create narratives that explain something real in an engaging manner was a surprise to me. Nevertheless, I fully agree with the speaker and made a mental note that if I ever try to be an author, sci-fi is where I can use both my writing and scientific knowledge to create something interesting and educational.

Another was about creating STEM escape rooms by Amanda Mathieson, Education and Public Engagement Manager, University College Dublin. Can you imagine? As a person who loves escape room games, I am thrilled at the possibility of using my knowledge in STEM to escape the room. I wonder how I can use tissue engineering or developmental biology in an escape room. It can be something more obvious, as an escape from a laboratory in the case of an accident; or it can be something more mysterious, connected to the development of the human brain, memories, and emotions! Either way, I hope this kind of escape room will become popular and that they will come to Japan!

The panel discussion “Many Worlds of Science Communicators.”

The panel discussion was facilitated by Heather Young, Vice President of Communication and Public Relations, Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST). The three amazing panelists were Chibuamam Ilechukwu (Founder, Hypertension Africa),  Charmaine Caparas (Communications Manager, Stockholm Environment Institute/ Chulalongkorn University), and Naoki Namba (Director of Public Relations & Communications Division, Hokkaido University/ Director/Professor, Hokkaido University). It was great to see science communicators with different backgrounds sharing how they ended up in this field, their challenges, and their hopes for the future. Charmaine Caparas shared insights from her extensive career in communication on some tough questions, such as “Should science writers be worried about AI?”. Chibuamam Ilechukwu talked about her fight against disinformation and lack of information and her quest to help people live healthier lives. Naoki Namba shared how he shaped his path toward science communication when it didn’t exist as a profession in Japan. When asked about his motivation for choosing science communication after receiving a master’s degree in life sciences, he said something that particularly spoke to me. What he liked about science was knowledge, the excitement of understanding something. But he didn’t care if he was the one who made the discovery or explained the phenomenon first.  

Using art to explain science

And finally, the last workshop. I chose “Illustrate to Educate: Simplifying Science through Art and Storytelling” by Nikitaa Sivaakumar, Founder and director of Wonder Yonder Research and Design Pvt Ltd. This was a challenging one! We had about 2 minutes to finish a drawing panel, each panel exploring a certain artistic trick to illustrate a piece of scientific information. The story we were illustrating was about the shape of the shinkansen (bullet train) head, which was designed after the beak of a kingfisher, and how this biomimicking helped to solve the problem of noise caused by airwaves pushed by the high-speed trains. Not only that, but we also got a couple of minutes of masterclass on how to do animation. The exercises were difficult, but they made me think about many things, as I have a bit of experience in creating simple animations to explain my research. And I am definitely practicing them again when I have a bit more time on my hands. One of the exciting ideas Nikitaa Sivaakumar shared was that when you try to explain complicated ideas, you can use drawings that are not perfect, maybe even intentionally simplistic. When you try to understand something you consider difficult, you don’t want to see perfect and complicated pictures; you would instead appreciate something that looks simple! Definitely check out the Wonder Younder Instagram!

And that’s a wrap! It’s amazing how many fascinating conversations you can have in the span of two days. I can’t wait for next year’s conference. But in the meantime, I hope this article will inspire anyone new to science communication to join a community. Here are some links to some of the communities I know:

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