Second Annual SciComm South a success

By Adrianna Acosta

A diverse crowd of about 75 gathered at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin on April 6 to network and discuss science communication at the second annual SciComm South.

In his keynote speech, Thomas Hayden, director of Stanford University’s graduate program in environmental communication, reflected on the power of human collaboration. Hayden described a golden age of science communication, with new models of journalism and lower barriers to entry in the field. He reminded the audience that this golden age is the result of individuals working together to create new opportunities for their work. “We have willed it to be this way,” he said of the abundance and variety of science content available. Hayden also talked about the importance of avoiding isolation and seeking out connection in his career, saying that he found a close group of other science writers when he was just starting out.

Exploring new funding models
After lunch, which meant braving the rain for fare from the Texas Chili Queens food truck, a panel on new models of funding for publications featured Keith Campbell of the Dallas Morning News, Kiah Collier of the Texas Tribune, and Brendan Gibbons of San Antonio’s Rivard Report. Campbell brought up a core struggle of the communication industry: quality journalism is valuable and expensive to make, so many publications find it difficult to justify giving audiences free access. Both Collier and Gibbons were in support of free access, and Gibbons said that the Rivard Report is working to diversify their revenue streams in order to achieve that goal. Collier attributed much of the Texas Tribune’s success with non-profit funding to an extremely passionate and hard-working staff who want to see journalism survive.

Concurrently, Nichole Bennett of STEMprov used improv to get attendees thinking about their approach to communication. In one exercise, participants were instructed to start each sentence with the first letter of their partner’s last word. The goal was to get people listening, rather than focusing only on a pre-prepared response. The activity was a reminder that communication is not just about expressing one’s own thoughts, but about being open to new ideas.

Connecting with your audiences
After a coffee break, a panel on communicating directly with the public featured Monika Maeckle of the Texas Butterfly Ranch, Pamela Owen of the Texas Memorial Museum, and Audrey Stewart of the Animal Facts Club. Stewart said that while there is a certain element of risk in putting resources into public events, the potential to create deeper engagement in the audience is worth it. Maeckle agreed, saying the tangible experience of seeing science up close and personal is unparalleled. After tagging monarch butterflies and watching them fly off, Maeckle is sure that individuals who participate in the Pollinator Festival will never look at a butterfly the same way again. Maeckle also pointed out that approaching science on many levels allows diverse groups to connect with it, from art enthusiasts to technology geeks. Owen added that interacting with the public is an opportunity to get immediate feedback about the clarity and quality of communication, as well as a way to open oneself up to new ways of approaching a topic.

At the same time, a panel featuring Mickey Delp of Dadageek, Thomas Hayden, and Bonnie Petrie of Texas Public Radio focused on advice for navigating the field of science communication and connecting with audiences. Hayden reminded the audience that the field is always changing, and that lack of expertise won’t hold back anyone who is motivated to learn. Petrie agreed, saying “don’t ever have too much pride to ask a question.” She also emphasized the importance of bringing excitement and curiosity to science communication. The kinds of things shared with a friend over coffee, Petrie said, are what will draw an audience and get them invested in a new topic. This kind of personal, conversational science could be the key to engaging millennials in science news. Delp explained that this demographic prefers discussion and interaction in the classroom, suggesting that this mindset may extend to their media consumption as well.

The role of solutions journalism
The second keynote speech was given by Sarah Gustavus, the Mountain West regional manager for the Solutions Journalism Network. Gustavus introduced solutions journalism as a useful method for telling science stories. The central question in this approach, Gustavus said, is “who’s doing it better?” The idea is to ask what systemic processes are leading to positive outcomes and make audiences aware of them. Gustavus emphasized that the goal of solutions journalism in not to provide a neat resolution to every story but to remind audiences that large, complex problems, such as climate change, are “works in progress.” She said that the hopeful message of solutions journalism results in more audience engagement in the long run. People are more willing to share these stories, and focus on the issues they cover, than the barrage of negative headlines.

During the final break of the day, Molly Cummings, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Texas at Austin and co-owner of District Distilling, gave a short presentation on the science of gin. Cummings told the audience she enjoyed the transition from doing biology to marketing alcohol. However, she noted a fundamental difference between the two: science is built on shared information and data, while in the business world, new ideas are called trade secrets. Cummings generously brought two of her company’s best-selling trade secrets for attendees to sample. As guests laughed over their spirits, the conference drew to a close.

The aim of the SciComm South conference is to bolster the community of science communicators in the Southern Central United States. The first meeting, in 2018, was supported by a Peggy Girshman Idea Grant from NASW. The 2019 meeting was supported in part by sponsorships from Texas A&M University Press and Huston-Tillotson University’s Department of Natural Sciences, as well as many volunteer hours from meeting organizers Juli Berwald, Marc Airhart, Melissa Gaskill, Viviane Callier, and Nichole Bennett.

Adrianna Acosta is an undergraduate student in biology at the University of Texas at Austin.

May. 15, 2019