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Why Empathy, Connection, and Confidence are Critical for Science Communication

science communication workshop

At The Center for Communicating Science at Virginia Tech, Patricia Raun brings her background as a professional actor to training programs for scientists to communicate their work to the public. They learn theater improvisation skills and “build their muscles of empathy, connection, and confidence.”

By Chris McCullough

“Your vocation is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest needs.”

So says Patricia Raun, professional actor and director of The Center for Communicating Science at Virginia Tech. She developed the idea for the center over several years and has served as its director since its charter was approved in 2016. At the Entomological Society of America 2019 Eastern Branch Meeting, she facilitated the workshop “Get out of the elevator! Succinct and compelling interactions with the public.”

Patricia Raun

Patricia Raun

After the meeting, I spoke with Raun to hear her perspectives on science communication, entomology, and more.

McCullough: You have a very personal connection to entomology through your father, Earle Raun. He was a faculty member at Iowa State and the entomology department head at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln before starting his own company, Pest Management Company. Could you talk about your relationship with your father?

Raun: Some of my earliest memories of Dad are focused around insects. It was always a special treat to go to his lab in Ankeny and see the insects. I also remember going to the insectary and the green houses in Ames with much anticipation of what I would see. It was so exciting to see the drawers of collections or fascinating living things. I can remember the smells of the places so distinctly. And, of course, we always had cages full of things at home. There were no insects in the freezer, however; that was where my mother put her foot down. I was never afraid of insects or bats or snakes or spiders the way some of my friends were. I always wondered how a little insect could inspire shrieks of fear.

Chris McCullough

Chris McCullough

After Dad began Pest Management Company and started his work with farmers and integrated pest management throughout the Midwest, our relationship was slightly different. He had three daughters that were being raised in the radical 60s and 70s. We were all very moved by Rachel Carson’s work, and we thought it was evil to use pesticides of any kind. But Dad was very balanced in his approach. He was actually probably more of an environmentalist than we were. He sought a balance that made sense for the land and the farmer—using chemicals carefully when it was of benefit, crop rotation in other instances, introduction of natural enemies at other times. I remember he was very excited about the possibilities for nematode control of corn root worm. He wasn’t working for the chemical companies—he was working for the farmers and the land. That balance was frustrating to us girls because as teenagers we saw the world through a pretty narrow lens.

Dad loved being in the field and making connections with farmers, trying to support their success with their crops. He would engage with farmers and talk their language. He never set himself apart from them. He had a way of connecting with people to understand their concerns. That ability came innately to him. I think in some ways this science communication work is coming full circle for me. Because I am trying to help people figure out what they have in common with others—and I had a great example in my dad’s science communication.

Would you tell us about some of the work you do at the center?

I feel that my great joy as an actor meets the world’s great needs right now. Many of the most pressing issues in our world are focused around connecting the work of scientists to the broader public. I find great joy in bringing people who spend a lot of time with theory and data into their bodies and hearts. How do I bring the tools of human connection to people who spend a lot of time in their minds? Actors have developed experiences and ways of being in the world that help them connect to their characters, to other actors on stage, and to an audience. They are very practical and simple approaches—but they are not things that people outside of theater use. I bring those tools, exercises, and skills to people who need to communicate to people outside of their own discipline—to build their muscles of empathy, connection, and confidence.

The Center offers a variety of classes and workshops. I designed the graduate Communicating Science class in 2012. The demand for it has grown five-fold since then. Everything in the class is experiential and based off theater improvisation work. We explore a variety of ways that scientists might want to communicate. We are trying to inspire that sense of wonder and curiosity that anyone can experience about the mysteries in science. We explore ways that the core of the work can be clear and understandable to anyone who is curious enough to open the book or ask the question. One of our workshops, led by my colleague, Carrie Kroehler, explores science writing for children. I think writing for young people is a wonderful exercise. Richard Feynman said something like, “If you can’t explain it to a child, then you really don’t understand your work.”

We also teach an undergraduate class in collaboration. We use the collaboration tools of theater to teach them the skills of working together before they need those skills to pursue specialized fields. My hope is to get those habits established before they need to do transdisciplinary work.

We interact with scientists and researchers from all over the world who value this type of engagement. In the last few months I’ve done a workshop for the American Society of Consulting Arborists, provided a keynote address at the NSF BioXFEL Science and Technology Center, and had a wonderful experience at the Eastern Branch of the ESA. Participants tell me that the concepts and practices help them collaborate with each other and communicate their work to funding agencies, politicians, the general public, or even their family. I had an arborist come up to me and tell me that the work saved his marriage because it helped him learn to listen better!

What does success look like, in terms of helping scientists become better communicators with the public?

We want to get scientists out of the academic bubble and into their communities. That is why we do things like Science on Tap and our other outreach programs. Scientists need to be engaged in political activity—in our civic organizations, industries, and spiritual centers. The connections need to be made outside of the ivory towers of academia. The way we can build trust in science is to equip scientists with the ability to connect and earn the trust of their communities.

Right now scientists are seen as competent and yet cold. We need to help them warm up! Then we’ll be less likely to hear people say things like, “We’ve had two of the coldest winters, so there is no climate change.” Those kinds of statements will be a thing of the past because they will know a scientist to talk it over with.

The theme for the 2019 ESA Annual Meeting is “Advocate Entomology.” Any quick advice for entomologists to advocate for themselves and the profession as a whole?

As I said earlier, I believe the most urgent challenges in our world today involve science. For example, when I read about “insect collapse,” I am really concerned.  Entomologists seem to be particularly humble people, but we need to remember how important their work is to the future of the planet! Some of the things that I’d encourage them to do are, one, find ways to really listen to their communication partners; two, find something they have in common; three, use shared words and language that can be understood; four, share humanity, joys, and struggles—because emotional connection is more powerful than logic; and five, bring underrepresented groups into the conversation and be present in communities outside of their field—not as a “presenter” but as a person. And know that they have folks like me who are depending on your success!

Learn more and find science communication resources online at The Center for Communicating Science or on Twitter at @VT_ACT.

Chris McCullough is a student at Virginia Tech in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences studying ticks, bees, and biological control of vegetable pests. Email: ctmccull@vt.edu.

Photos courtesy of Patricia Raun and The Center for Communicating Science.

1 Comment »

  1. Thanks for the nice blog, Chris! I’d like folks to know that I was paraphrasing Frederick Buechner (writer and theologian) in the opening remarks.

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