Written by Sarah Rommelfanger
“Excellent communication skills” are perennially on the list of desired traits for all professionals. Scientists in particular benefit from writing convincing grant applications to get their work funded, crafting compelling manuscripts and talks to share results with their peers, and designing figures that accurately communicate findings to a general audience that may be voting on how their research gets used. In addition to these benefits for an individual scientist’s career, our world of instant global communication that facilitates ongoing debates about the climate crisis and multiple waves of the COVID-19 pandemic emphasizes that effective communication and visualization of complex scientific concepts are crucial to global health and safety.
Despite the importance of proficiency in communication skills, scientists often receive their training informally and piecemeal throughout their career via on-the-job practical experience and intermittent feedback from mentors and colleagues. To supplement and standardize the communication training of researchers at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL), the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences (DBBS) has recently added formal science communication curriculum and training opportunities. Peer-led organizations like InPrint also play a pivotal role in the growth of many researchers’
This summer, leaders from the InPrint peer editing and science communication network stepped up to share valuable lessons in science communication with their fellow WUSTL researchers. The Scientific Communication Workshop Series held in June 2021 covered the in-demand skills of effective data visualization, schema design using Adobe Illustrator, and writing abstracts and specific aims.
The mission of the InPrint communication network is to improve the quality of scientific communications at WUSTL, and they have grown significantly since their inception in 2018. On top of diversifying the types of services offered, the number of InPrint editors has grown to over 50 from just 9, highlighting that graduate students and postdocs highly value hands-on experience in science communication, such that they’re willing to volunteer their time to acquire it. Additionally, the number of client submissions to InPrint grew by 240% in 2019, and by another 100% in 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic, illustrating the high demand for their editing and consultation services.
Inspired by the increasing popularity of InPrint’s services, and requests from WUSTL program directors and instructors for supplemental training, InPrint leadership realized that a series of training workshops could be used to share their expertise with a broader audience than even their rapidly growing client base.
InPrint leaders designed a workshop series to cover skills they identified as the most in-demand: Data Visualization, Schema Design, and Writing Abstracts and Specific Aims. Each workshop contained well-crafted (and entertaining!) examples of science communication done well, examples of common mishaps counterbalanced with specific strategies for improvement, and lists of recommended resources for further advice.
Effective Data Visualization (presented by Dr. Amanda Dicks and Dr. Kathleen Schoch)
Visual representations of scientific data in manuscript figures, posters, and presentations, are often the ultimate end products of scientific research. Effective figures can quickly communicate huge quantities of data and complex relationships between variables. However, the myriad unspoken rules about good figure design are often not obvious to new researchers. The InPrint Data Visualization workshop showcased many figures in which a few simple modifications could prevent misrepresentation of the data and accelerate the audience’s comprehension of the main message. Choice of appropriate summary statistics, appropriate axis limits, useful graphics, and logical ordering are all important in conveying your data faithfully and in leading your reader to the relevant conclusions.
For example, in Figure 1, the pie chart on the left and the bar graph on the right display the same data, but the bar graph allows the reader to more quickly and easily discern which categories are more popular than others, and by how much.
As illustrated in Figure 2, use of creative graphics may make your figures more interesting to look at, but when combined with inappropriate axis limits, can cause misleading (or possibly terrifying!) interpretations of your data.
For help improving your own figures, check out InPrint’s Figure Doctor and Figure Feedback services, and for feedback on your presentations, see InPrint’s Presentation Consulting service!
Schema Design and Adobe Illustrator Demonstration (presented by Catie Newsom-Stewart and Dr. Andrea Scharf)
Many scientists may self-identify as “not the artsy type”, so the idea of creating their own graphical assets and assembling them into schemata can be quite daunting. Still, many scientists must become impromptu graphical designers to communicate their results in the form of multi-part schemata, placing their new knowledge in the context of what is already known about the interactions between molecules, cells, and organisms. While looks aren’t everything, attractive figure design can make your presentations more
engaging, more memorable, and lead to more citations. However, graphic design
software capable of producing appealing 3D figures can be intimidating to find or learn to use. The InPrint Schema Design and Adobe Illustrator Demonstration showcased the kinds of figures that Adobe Illustrator is capable of creating and recommended other
graphic design software (including Inkscape and Affinity Designer) to give attendees a
starting point and a basic tool kit for creating 3D representations of their scientific schemata. For example, the workshop demonstration walked through how to use and combine a few basic tools, such as curved shapes and gradient shading, to produce professional-looking schema figures. These simple strategies for creating 3D schemata can be applied in other software, even PowerPoint!
For help creating and improving your scientific schemata, check out InPrint’s Schema Design service! In addition, follow-up workshops are already scheduled for November 2021 to explore even more Adobe Illustrator uses, at both beginner and advanced levels!
Abstract and Specific Aims Workshop (presented by Jamie Moffa and Rosie Dutt)
The Abstracts and Specific Aims workshop presented this summer was adapted for a more general audience, building upon prior InPrint workshops originally designed at the request of program directors to help students in the Molecular Genetics and Genomics program and the Developmental, Regenerative and Stem Cell Biology program prepare for the mock research proposal in their qualifying exams. This workshop covered important tips for crafting strong abstracts and specific aims, including how to identify good research questions, how to sequence ideas, and even how to keep readers engaged by using careful word choice.
One of the key strategies for effective scientific writing is to use the “inverted pyramid” model for ordering the information presented. In this model, broad contextual information is provided first to educate the reader on the background needed to understand the increasingly specific and detailed information presented later in the piece. This model is the direct inverse of recommendations for news articles and most other types of writing, in which writers are recommended to put the most important and specific information first, so that the reader acquires the key information even if they don’t read all the way to the end, where more generalized supporting information can be listed.
Careful organization and clear wording make the reader’s job easier, and grant reviewers on a short deadline love an easy read! Reviewers are more likely to look favorably upon a well-structured application that makes the merits of your proposal abundantly clear.
For feedback on your abstracts, aims, grant applications and more, submit your writing to InPrint for peer editing!
Interest in the workshop series greatly exceeded the creator’s expectations, with over 250 registrants across all three workshops! Attendees of the workshop series included graduate students and postdocs from many departments across both the medical and Danforth campuses, several WUSTL staff and instructors, and even a few students from other universities in St. Louis and other cities!
Pre- and post-surveys gave the workshop organizers clear metrics to gauge the effectiveness of their programming. Attendees’ self-assessed confidence with using the skills covered in the workshops increased dramatically after attending the workshops. In the post-surveys, attendees rated the usefulness of these workshops at 8.25/10 on average, with 31% of attendees rating the workshop’s usefulness at 10/10! One workshop presenter recounted her feelings of accomplishment after sharing the workshop materials with her lab mates, and seeing them apply the data visualization advice to their presentations the very next week!
Given that attendees expressed a high demand for and appreciation of these workshops, InPrint leaders are certain that offering the Scientific Communication Workshop Series on a regular basis will be valuable to the WUSTL community. Plans include expanding the target audience even further beyond the WUSTL School of Medicine, especially into the School of Engineering, and other scientific departments.
InPrint organized a second round of workshops in November, including both a beginner-level and intermediate-level Schema Design with Adobe Illustrator workshop and more will come. Keep an eye on your inbox for future announcements of even more scientific communication training experiences offered by InPrint!
If you missed these workshops, don’t worry! The InPrint peer editing network offers free and confidential consultation on presentations, figure and schema design, and editing of written materials like manuscripts and grant applications, including writing structure and clarity, copy editing, English language use, and more!