Focus on online scicomm. An interview with the founders of Scicomm Hub

While senior scientists are often uneasy using social media, Ph.D. students and early career researchers favour the use of social media to benefit their scholarly communication practice, disseminate their work, make new connections to build their network and discover and share information with society.
I asked Beth Raps to interview two of them: Amanda Freise and Laura Haney, founders of SciComm Hub and Signal To Noise Mag, two interesting and popular social media projects totally managed by Ph.D. students.
Cristina Rigutto

An interview with Amanda Freise and Laura Haney


Beth Raps: Is SciComm Hub trying to empower readers though accurate information (filling the knowledge deficit)? Or trying to stimulate a process of democratic dialogue over science and technology-based issues? Or creating engagement activities to promote STEMM

Laura and Amanda:The main purpose of SciComm Hub is to provide resources and information about careers in science communication. We noticed that many websites had scattered resources about various scicomm careers, but that there didn’t seem to be a database with consolidated information. UCLA had very few resources to offer (though we’re happy to say that this is improving thanks to an open-minded administration and great Career Center staff). In thinking of how to organize these resources, we figured that most visitors to the site would have a rough idea of career types they were interested in, so we organized the site around four main categories: teaching, outreach, writing, and policy. Of course, there are many types of science communication jobs, but we felt these groups covered most potential careers.

We did want to create dialogue, which is where the @SciComm_Hub and @IAmSciComm twitter accounts come in. Via @SciComm_Hub we collect, share, and discuss #scicomm-related information on Twitter, which has an amazing community of science communicators. At @IAmSciComm, our rotating-curation (ro-cur) account, we invite a new host each week to take over the account and share about their background, experiences, and activities in the context of #scicomm. The account has been active for just over a year and has gained a diverse group of followers, many of whom actively engage with each other and with the hosts of @IAmSciComm.

Our most recent project, Signal to Noise Mag (which we started with fellow UCLA PhD student Nisar Farhat), combines career development, education, and outreach. Signal to Noise is a magazine produced by scientists, and written for everyone. We publish pieces about a variety of science topics, including reports of research, interviews with scientists, science in art and entertainment, and more. Thus far the majority of our contributors have been young scientists. We’ve received positive feedback on how the writing and editing process has helped them improve their writing skills and to better understand how to communicate science to people who aren’t specialists in their fields of research.

Where do you come from: what's your academic training? what about your "training" as laypeople--before or alongside/in parallel to academe--that led you to the goals you have for SciCommHub?

Amanda:It might sound cliché, but my parents laid the foundation for my passions. My father instilled in me the incomparable value of an education, and how a life of learning as much as possible is a life well-spent--thus my journey into higher education. I majored in genetics at UC Irvine and minored in women’s studies. Those humanities classes were actually my favourites because they filled the void of conversation, debate, discussion that biology classes just don’t leave room for. As for my PhD studies in Molecular and Medical Pharmacology at UCLA, I dove into antibody-based molecular imaging because it allowed me to study the immune system while developing biological tools that have real applications in the world of medicine. Nevertheless, I’ve felt for a while that I don’t want to continue doing bench research after my studies are completed, so I started exploring other career options.

Both my mother and father are excellent communicators, professionally and on a personal level as well, so I find it very satisfying when ideas, emotions, and information can be shared effectively. I’ve actually become very interested in the psychology and sociology of communication: Why do people accept information as true or not? What influence do various factors in our lives have on our willingness to communicate and be communicated to? My fascination with communication matched with my passion for learning and science. That’s how I found science communication.

Laura:I started off majoring in Astrophysics from Barnard College with a minor in Math. While I was an undergrad, I had multiple opportunities to participate in community outreach (both in K12 schools and for the general public), and was also a teaching assistant for a few intro level classes. I loved both of those experiences, but never could put my finger on why they interested me so much.

I went to graduate school, mostly because I did love Astronomy, but partially because that’s what you’re supposed to do after getting an undergrad degree in STEM. As a grad student, I had more opportunities to participate in teaching and K12 outreach programs, and came across the field of physics education research.
As I discovered more and more people who had gotten their PhDs and gone on to become professional teachers, outreach directors, museum curators, and even YouTube educators, I realized that a career outside academia was realistic--and profitable! Still, there were no resources at UCLA (at least, none that I knew about at the time) to help me round out my science communication experience. Specifically, I wanted experience with science writing and the art of mass education via social media.

That’s when I met Amanda. We had very complementary interests, but both wanted careers in science communication and didn’t know how to move forward. We combined our resources and built the Hub, and along the way, we discovered many (many) other grads and postdocs who either had the careers we wanted, or shared our interests. None of us have had any professional training in science communication, and most of the workshops or conferences we’ve attended have been run by other graduate students or postdocs.

As for my training as a “layperson,” I absolutely love nerding out with my fellow grads about their science, and want to get people excited about my field. The advances we’re making in science in our time are absolutely breath-taking, and if you’re not totally floored by what’s going on, it’s only because scientists have failed to explain themselves. But that’s a problem that our generation is uniquely poised to solve, especially with the popularity and accessibility of social media. 

Whose side are you on—whose side is SciComm Hub on?

Laura:I think we split our “loyalties” between the public and the scientists. The public is often short-changed when it comes to access to scientific discoveries or explanations to everyday phenomena. They will either get a watered-down answer from someone who doesn’t have time to explain everything, or they will get misleading information from someone who is not practiced in science communication.

On the other hand, the scientists themselves never receive any sort of training in science communications anywhere along their academic path. More and more, we’ve found that scientists want to express themselves and explain their science to the public, but either don’t know how, or don’t have an outlet to do so. The situation is even worse for any scientists who want to pursue full-time careers in science communication, since there are very few career development resources available to them.

Through the creation of the SciComm Hub, we hoped to foster a community of scientists interested in science communication, and to help them connect with the community in meaningful ways. We feel that this connection is very much a two-way street, and that scientists have a great deal to learn by collaborating with writers, artists, policy advocates, teachers, etc.

Amanda:I’m on the side of knowledge for all. Every person, not just those that are able to receive scientific training, should have the opportunity to learn about science. I think scientists have a responsibility to spend at least a small portion of their time stepping back, connecting with people outside of their immediate peers, and asking: “What can I do to make my work accessible and engaging to X person/population?”
As Laura notes, this isn’t something that many scientists are trained to do--so we provide resources for those who want to improve their communication skills, and try to convince those scientists who don’t see science communication as a priority that it is in their best interest to do it.

After reading some of the Twitter feed and Signal to Noise website, as well as SciComm Hub, I sense a lot of excitement you two are contributing to in the “third space” of energetic and deliberate bridging between public and scientific cultural spaces. As leaders in this third space, what excites you both most about it and being part of it? What concerns you, if anything—what are you watching out for in your writing and organizing?

Amanda and Laura:One of the things that we have to be most careful of is creating what’s known as an “echo chamber.” That is, preaching science to people who already have an interest in the subject. With Signal to Noise, we want to reach a new audience, and engage with people who might not otherwise know or care about the science that’s going on in our labs every day. It’s also important to strike the right tone with the audience.

We walk a fine line between making science accessible and promoting stories that we believe matter most to the general public. It’s easy to create “click-bait” articles that sound exciting and generate a lot of hits, but it’s more difficult (and in many ways more important) to connect the general public with the reality of the science they see in the news.

The challenge with SciComm Hub is that we have very little formal scicomm training ourselves. It’s not a normal part of scientist training at most institutions, so we’ve done a lot of self-teaching, and this seems to be common; the most prominent scicomm workshop that we know of, ComSciCon, is organized and led by graduate students. But we make it work, and we’re all able to learn from each other’s experiences.

It’s been so exciting to ride the wave of enthusiasm about the Hub and the magazine. Every day, we’re finding new people, new scicomm groups, across the country that we never knew existed. We (scicomm-ers) are a much bigger group than either of us ever realized. Many of us had been going through grad school, knowing we were passionate about scicomm, but without an outlet to express that passion. Finding like-minded people and working with them to create something totally new is one of the best things we’ve done as graduate students.

Laura Haney, Ph.D. Co-founder of ScicommHub and Founder, Co-Founder and Managing Editor of Signal to Noise Mag. Laura recently graduated with her PhD from the department of Physics and Astronomy at UCLA. In her thesis research with Professor Ben Zuckerman she studied circumstellar debris disks. Laura will be inspiring a new generation of astronomers at her next position as a high school physics instructor.
Laura Haney on Linkedin

Amanda Freise, Co-founder of SciComm Hub, Co-Founder and Editor in Chief of Signal to Noise Mag. She is a 5th-year Ph.D. candidate in Molecular and Medical Pharmacology at UCLA. Amanda is interested in creating opportunities for scientists to improve their communication skills and engage with the public. She is fascinated by how people communicate and consume knowledge. In her spare time she is a docent at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum and enjoys climbing, backpacking and swing dancing.
Amanda Freise on Linkedin


Beth Gillian Raps, Ph.D, is a philosopher, fundraiser, meditator, money coach, and mother. Her coaching and consulting practice can be found at Raising Clarity: to cultivate abundance in noble causes, people and organizations. A former founder of The Adaptation Network: Building Resilience in a Changing Climate, she writes on racism, money, time and lay/expert knowledge at Raising Clarity blog.