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, December 23, 2013

Sailing the C’s of Science Communication

Image modified from www.clker.com
A good public talk about science should both inform and entertain (in my opinion, any scientific talk should do both!). At FameLab, with three minutes and no PowerPoint crutch, contestants seek the right balance of information and fun.  The judging criteria really hit this balance using the three C’s of science communication: Content, Clarity, and Charisma. These C’s form the backbone for any good talk, and we’ve looked at components of all of them before.  Here, I want to remind readers that they all fit together. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

FameLab: share your science in 3 minutes or less

Last week I competed in FameLab USA, a science communication contest sponsored by NASA and National Geographic.  Each contestant gets 3 minutes, and only 3 minutes, to talk about research that interests them.  No powerpoint, no graphs, just you, maybe a basic prop, and the audience.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Filler mosquitoes

I once had a colleague who liked the phrase “sort of”…a lot.  He once recorded a record 81 “sort of’s” in an hour-long talk. Not only did these unnecessary qualifications weaken his presentation, but the regular use of a filler word (or phrase, in this case) hindered communication of his message.

We’ve all used them…the ahs, ums, and you knows that creep into our speech when we’re searching for the right words. An occasional filler word is like a solo mosquito - possibly annoying, but not much of a concern.  Too many filler words, however, are like a swarm – the audience is too distracted swatting them away to pay close attention.

Lately I’ve noticed a new filler word cropping up in my own speech; actually. Yes, this is a legitimate word, but I (and several friends) seem to use it as a crutch.  Why say something is “actually over there” when simply “over there” would suffice? Even real words, when used as fillers, can detract from our point.

Monday, October 7, 2013

She did what??

From http://planninga-from-nanninga.blogspot.com
Grab your audience’s attention with an unexpected twist!  I recently attended a workshop on writing successful grant proposals (highly recommended!), and the presenter, Dr.Peg AtKisson, used a clever trick to get us all in our seats after the lunch break. Peg, a rock-music vocalist, briskly launched into a musical story about cats parachuting into Borneo.  We were captivated…and quiet!

Monday, August 26, 2013

From Their Perspective

Most of us know the old adage “know thy audience.”  The critical question is slightly different - what does your audience want? 

I recently participated in a discussion on science communication, moderated by Gail Scowcroft of Discovery of Sound in the Sea (I highly recommend their website - more about them in future posts). Ms. Scowcraft defined three classes of audience member that we might interact with during a talk (or for written communication): learners, stakeholders, and the media.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Vancouver Washington Toastmasters Club

Live in the Vancouver, WA area?  Want to practice your communication and leadership skills?  There's a new Toastmasters International chapter forming in the north end of town.  We meet every Monday from 7-8 PM at the Salmon Creek Burgerville. This Monday (8/26/13) is an open house where we showcase the Toastmasters program and how it benefits members.  Come early to get a seat!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Blogging from the Deep

I just got back from a conference on the Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life in beautiful Budapest, Hungary. The focus, of course, was underwater noise…noise produced by boat traffic, or bridge construction, or the animals themselves, and how this noise effects marine mammals, fish, and aquatic invertebrates.

My next several blog posts will highlight themes in science communication that came to light during this conference, either as issues raised by conference participants, or as items I noted as an attendee (and presenter). I also hope to feature blog entries from guest bloggers that I met at the conference – I’m not the only one thinking about communication!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Increase your h-index by improving your presentation

By Janine Castro, PhD

According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H-index) “the h-index is an index that attempts to measure both the productivity and impact of the published work of a scientist or scholar. The index is based on the set of the scientist's most cited papers and the number of citations that they have received in other publications.” If you quickly scan the average number of citations per scientific journal article, you are likely to see a range of 5 to 10. Because a few papers are cited hundreds or thousands of times, there are many papers on the other end of the distribution that are never cited.
Have they read your paper?
The River Restoration Northwest audience, February 2013.
Using myself as an example, my most cited publication has accumulated 81 citations over the past decade, while 7 of my papers have never been cited. In contrast, over the past six months, I have made 7 presentations that reached 850 individuals. Recognizing that the h-index does not reflect the total number of individuals who have actually read a paper, but rather just those who cited a paper, this isn’t really a fair comparison. However, giving presentations is an excellent opportunity to enlighten an interested audience about your research.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Dance, Dance Revolution…of Science Communication

Source: http://insiderspassport.com/  
Speaking in front of a group is hard enough, but to dance?  That pushes many scientists over the edge.  Still, if you are one of those researchers brave enough to “bust a move”, Science Magazine has a challenge for you – the Dance your PhD contest!

This contest requires a whole different communication skill set – the ability to explain your dissertation research through interpretive dance.  Anyone that’s ever conducted dissertation research in a scientific field can participate, even if you finished grad school before the internet. This is a great chance to communicate your science in a new way, without
saying a word.

For all of your brave science communicators, round up some friends, your favorite dance beats, and choreograph a winner as you dance your PhD. Entries are due 1 October 2013.  Good luck!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Authenticity: just be you

By Janine Castro, PhD

I’ve been teaching a number of public speaking workshops for scientists lately and have stumbled across an interesting dilemma.  As an instructor, I make a diligent effort to model the behavior that I am trying to teach, because, after all, public speaking is a performance art. My goal, however, is not for students to emulate my style, but to create a style all their own. Demonstrating the “right” way to present invariably leads to the “wrong” way to present. I have come to the conclusion that there really is no correct presentation style, but there is your correct style.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Tracking your progress?

I just attended a talk where the speaker had a progress bar at the bottom of each slide.  The bar nicely showed where we were at in the talk, and how long until it was done (or so I thought-some of his “single slides” were really multiple slides built up!). As an audience member, I appreciated the progress bar, but I also found it distracting…when the speaker was explaining some of the more difficult concepts, I found myself staring at the bar, rather than trying to follow his explanation.
     What do you think?  Have you ever tried using a progress bar or some kind of tracker that the audience can see?  Is this device helpful to the audience, or a barrier to communication? I look forward to hearing from you.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Speaking of Executive Presence

By Janine Castro
What is executive presence, other than a very trendy term that has infiltrated into the business lexicon? The best, short definition that I’ve run across is “a strong personal brand” (Susan Bates).  Executive presence is hard to break into components because it is more than a sum of its parts; however, there is general agreement that it is a culmination of appearance, confidence, and voice, but above all, it is authenticity – the quality of being trustworthy and reliable.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Science communication: It’s kids’ stuff

Why is the sky blue?  Why is water wet? Kids ask the really tough questions, questions we adults aren’t brave enough to voice anymore! To really communicate our science, and engage the next generation with real science, not just collections of facts, we need to talk to kids on their level. If we can explain our science to a kid and hold their interest while we teach, we’ve succeeded in our communication efforts.

From Wikimedia Commons
Enter Alan Alda (remember M.A.S.H.?) and the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Mr. Alda offers up the Flame Challenge, an international contest where scientists submit their best answers to a question posed by a kid. Last year’s question was “What is a flame?”. This year brings an even tougher question, “What is time?”. The kicker is in the judging - answers are judged not by scientists, but by 11-year-olds, and they aren’t shy about offering their opinion. Talk about trial by fire! (or perhaps, by flame)

If you want more help building skills before subjecting yourself to the Flame Challenge, or to any group of scientifically curious kids (or adults!), check out the course offerings by the Center for Communicating Science. They have a great line-up of science communication courses and workshops and even offer a certificate program. Check out the improv workshop…looks like fun!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Learning Style = Presentation Style?

By Janine Castro, PhD

Several years ago, one of my colleagues recommended that my prospective field course students take the Index of Learning Styles (ILS) Questionnaire.  Her contention was (and still is) that instructors must expand both their learning materials and delivery style to address the needs of all students … hence, the need to know my students preferred learning styles. The ILS was developed by Richard Felder and Barbara Soloman of North Carolina State University.  In a nutshell, learning preferences are evaluated on four dimensions -- active/reflective, sensing/intuitive, visual/verbal, and sequential/global. 

New Communicatalyst blogger!

I'd like to introduce Dr. Janine Castro, a geomorphologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service in Portland, OR.  I'll post Janine's full bio soon.  Janine has several years experience teaching science communication workshops and will be a regular contributor to Communicatalyst. We are also developing a website with science communication resources and will be offering workshops.  Very exciting times-stay tuned!