About Me

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I'm an assistant professor of neuroscience at Washington State University in Vancouver, where I use tiny zebrafish (the size of an eyelash!) as a model system to study human hearing loss and how we can prevent it. I'm also a long-time Toastmaster and I teach communication workshops. This blog represents the merging of my two passions - science and communication, which has really become one central passion - the science of communication. There's a revolution in science right now...the idea that we scientists should sometimes leave the lab and talk about what we do, and why we do it, to real people. This blog looks at why we should do this, and how to actually talk about science with non-scientists (and with each other!). Portions of this blog are also featured on Qualia, the AAAS MemberCenter blog site.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Trick, Treat, or Talk

On a fine Halloween day, why not sprinkle a little Halloween spirit into your talk? Dr. Gwenn Garden of the University of Washington did just that, giving us a little light-heartedness at the beginning of her neuroscience seminar today. Dr. Garden studies glia - the cells in our brains that neurons can’t live without. Rather than using a laser pointer to show us features on her slides, Gwenn used her fairy wand-today she was the glia fairy!  Her opening slides also included analogies to candy corn-anyone hungry for some Halloween candy? 

Monday, October 24, 2011

A renewed call to action

I know I said I was going “off the air” until I moved, but I heard a terrific conversation this morning on the local NPR station and couldn’t help sharing a few thoughts…with so much going on right now I sure have plenty of thoughts to share!

Today’s Weekday guest was bioethics professor Dr. Jonathan Moreno from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Moreno and host Steve Scher talked about serious ethical issues in experimental biology, from stem cells and regenerative medicine to personal genome sequencing. For those in the Seattle area, Dr. Moreno will be speaking at the University of Washington on 10/25/11 at 3:30 PM.

While the conversation itself was fascinating, what really resonated for me (and perhaps some of you) was the repeated call for scientists to leave the lab sometimes and engage the public in honest dialog about what we do and why it is important - how has science transformed our world? These conversations are critical when we work on potential hot-button issues such as stem cells or genetic engineering, but insight into how science works and how the world will benefit is important at all levels.

Not a new message, but still an important one.  If we want the public to understand and support science, it’s up to us to explain it clearly!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A short break

Hi Communicatalyst fans!  You've probably noticed that I haven't posted much recently...I know you're all eagerly awaiting my thoughts on science communication:).  I'll be taking a short break while I sell my house and prepare to start my faculty position at Washington State University in Vancouver, WA. Go out, speak well, and tell me all about your science communication adventures!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Tools of the Trade

I’m currently remodeling my house, which is why I haven’t blogged recently!  All of this remodeling has led me to think about tools…specifically about having the right tools for the each job.  If I want to do something, like paint a wall, I use a paintbrush.  I don’t actually have to invent the paintbrush, or build it, but I can buy one and use it for my project.

Similarly, when we speak to the public (or even to other scientists), there are many successful tools that we can use to actively engage our audience.  A few months back I had a great chat with Anna Lakovitch from The Smithsonian Associates, an organization within the Smithsonian Institute dedicated to public outreach and education.  Anna and I discussed creating a toolbox of ready-made audience engagement tools that speakers could use to liven up public presentations, even make them (gasp) fun!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Smart slides, smart audience

Standardized, easy to understand data slides can help your audience to grasp your talk and internalize your message.  They can also make your audience feel smart, because they can determine the take-home message of your slide before you mention it.  My previous post looked at how to effectively use text on presentation slides.  Here we’ll look at a few other features of a good slide-based presentation.

I recently attended Sean Georgi’s dissertation defense at the University of Washington.  Sean’s work features gorgeous multi-color fluorescent images and really interesting data on retinal development.  Here I want to highlight three tools that Dr. Georgi used during his talk to enhance audience understanding. I've pointed out several of these features on one of Sean's slides, shown on the left.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Texting by PowerPoint

I’ve talked a lot in this blog about how to structure and deliver a great scientific talk (and there’s more to come!), but it’s time to tackle the elephant in the room (or perhaps the elephant on the screen)…PowerPoint and other computer-generated visual aids.  We all use them, and I’ll be the first to admit that visual aids are useful.  Imagine describing a multi-year trend in climate data or the location of a protein inside a cell without an accompanying visual…possible, perhaps compelling, but tricky.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Put your money where your mouth is

Sometimes even the most well-intentioned science communicators need a little incentive. The Center for Media and Interactivity at Justus Liebig University provides just such an incentive with their competition Performing Science 2011.  The goal of this contest is to recognize scientists and other academics for true performances that incorporate modern technology and that entertain even as they instruct.  And the best performance is rewarded – to the tune of 5,000 euros!

I think this contest raises some interesting points.  Should we strive to entertain during our talks? What is the difference between a talk and a performance?  When we enter the public arena, are we performing?  What do you think?

Monday, May 2, 2011

What’s in a number?

We scientists love numbers…maybe it’s because we liked math when we were kids, or because we understand that putting a number to something is powerful-it allows us to understand the magnitude of something, or to make quantitative comparisons between things.  We can use numbers to calculate the distance to the moon, or compare the number of wolves in different populations across the western U.S. Really, the possibilities are almost endless!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

San Diego Symphony talk: the recap

In my last post I mentioned an upcoming pre-concert lecture I was giving at the San Diego Symphony. So, you might ask, how did it go, and what did I learn?  More importantly, what can we all learn as we strive to improve our communication skills?  In the weeks leading up to the talk I had focused on the organization that invited me, the audience, and the logistics.  Let’s briefly rehash these areas here.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Preparing for an upcoming talk: what do I need to know?

On April 7th I’m giving a public talk before a performance of the San Diego Symphony featuring solo percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie (feel free to stop by if you’re in the area!).  This gives me a good opportunity to discuss some of the things I try to plan in advance of a talk, particularly one in a new venue where I have limited information prior to the event.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Step out!

We scientists love to hide behind our data…”the data shows”, “our data suggests”.  When we give talks, we also love to hide behind the lectern, again letting the data speak for itself.  But if you’re reading this blog, you know (at least I hope you know!) that the data doesn’t speak for itself.  It’s up to us to do the talking, the inspiring, the explaining.  And in order to inspire, to explain, we must connect with our audience.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Recipe for enthusiasm!

I just attended the mid-winter meeting of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology, which is the big conference in my field (basically, hearing-related research).  I heard some great research talks, and some not-so-great talks, which is pretty typical for a conference. While I won't single anyone out, the great talks all had one thing in common - enthusiasm!  Whether a high-ranking professor or a new graduate student, the talks given with enthusiasm and passion all caught my attention.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Fight those filler words

Whether it’s a scientific talk or a wedding toast, what we say is important.  Just as important, though, is what we don’t say.  Filler words-those “ums”, “ahs”, “likes” and “you knows”, take power away from our words, as the audience fights to stay on course, to understand our message, while dodging filler word obstacles. 

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Get Engaged! Great public science talks in Seattle

Calling all science fans (nerds, closet nerds, hipsters, etc.) living in the Seattle area...want to hear about some great cutting-edge science in an understandable way?  The University of Washington Engage Science speakers series features UW researchers talking about their work in an informal evening setting.  This year's series kicks off on Wednesday, Feb. 2nd at 7 PM with an astronomy presentation that's sure to please.

Charlotte's talk will be in Johnson Hall, Room 075, UW Seattle Campus.  Come learn how stars are born!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Scientific Characters

In a previous post I introduced the idea of telling stories within a scientific talk - using techniques such as plot, character development, climax, and resolution to make science (and scientists!) come alive.

Today I want to highlight a recent example of a terrific scientist who also tells a great story.  A few months ago I attended a talk by Dr. Douglas Green from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.  Doug studies the intricacies of cell death signaling, which can be a bit of a dry subject even to the aficionado.  This was a lunchtime seminar full of cancer researchers, neuroscientists…in short, serious researchers prepared to dive in to the topic.  And then Doug told us a story, complete with characters, conflict, and (perhaps) resolution. 

This was no bedtime story, though. Embedded within the story was some serious science, as two groups of researchers presented different models for how specific cell death signaling molecules interact to promote cell death or survival.  Doug described the tension at meetings as each group presented evidence for their model and tried to discredit the other side.  After hearing about the conflict I was eager for a resolution-which group was right? He then led us through data from his lab that, depending on the circumstances, partially supported each model, and told of the triumph as each research group in the conflict gloated and sulked in turn. 

At the end of the hour I had a deeper understanding of cell death signaling without the usual post-talk sleepiness I often feel.  Instead, I was energized, having learned a lot and been entertained at the same time.  Even in a room full of scientists, it’s best to tell a story.  Have you heard great examples of scientists that use storytelling elements?  Share your story with us!

This blog post also appears on Qualia, part of AAAS MemberCentral.