Last week we had a fantastic introduction into this week’s topic from our guest poster Namrata Sengupta. If you missed Risk Communication 101, be sure to check out her post which focuses on why we talk about risk in toxicology, the process of risk assessment, and why we need to have accurate communications when talking about these risks.
It may at first seem that the theme for these last two weeks is only relevant for those doing toxicology research. While it is crucial in our field of research, risk and the importance of clearly communicating risk goes beyond toxicology. From issues in public health such secondhand smoke or issues on a much bigger level like global warming, talking about risk is prevalent in many areas of science. More broadly, risk appears whenever there is uncertainty in a decision that has consequences. For instance, in any research endeavor there is always some uncertainty in our predictions of the truth of the universe (i.e. the p-value). Knowing how to talk about uncertainties, risks, and the consequences of inactivity or a lack of understanding are crucial for any field.
A few weeks ago I attended the “7 Best Practices for Risk Communication” webinar organized by NOAA’s Office of Coastal Management. The webinar was targeted to people who work with natural disasters or landscape restoration. Even though my work doesn’t venture much into the risk communication area, I thought the webinar was a good introduction and was relevant for anyone whose work enters into the territory of ‘risk’ related to human health or the environment. Even if your work or your outreach doesn’t have a focus on behavioral changes, these principles are a great way to help you get started with your own research-oriented communication activities.
Before I go into a quick summary of the 7 best practices, it’s important to realize that the definition of risk communication is slightly different than what we discussed last week. In this webinar, risk communication was defined as “Exchanging thoughts, perceptions, and concerns about hazards to identify and motivate appropriate action” while last week we spoke more generally about “The interaction between environmental risk assessment scientists, managers, policy makers, and public stakeholders.” This first definition is less specific in that it doesn’t mention who is engaging in the communication, and instead defines this activity as a two-way conversation about a topic in which one of the parties is trying to motivate a change in the other.
Webinar take-home message: Behavior change is a slow process.
We won’t go into detail about every single part of the webinar, but for each section we’ll try to focus in on some of the most important points highlighted as the “Webinar take-home messages.”
If your goal is to have someone’s lifestyle or opinion change, be aware that this will take some time. Your audience will come with a diverse set of preparedness or awareness, with some not thinking the issue impacts them at all and others already 99% on board with what you’re saying. Whoever your audience is, it will also be unlikely that their opinion will change after one meeting or one interaction. Another reality is that you might not be able to change their opinions at all, so be ready to deal with pushback from people who just won’t budge at all.
Step 1) Have a plan: Know what you want and how you’ll achieve it.
Webinar take-home message: Think of who else is talking to your audience.
If you’re already an active science communicator then many of the considerations mentioned in this step are considerations you’ll already be aware of. Be sure to have a goal for what you want to say/achieve, know your audience, develop your message, be consistent, etc. In particular, the webinar made the point that we are not the only ones talking to our audience. Think about your own day: there’s long emails, #hashtags, and news that is updated on an hourly and faster basis as new information comes in. These information streams are flooding with opinions from experts, friends, and everyone in between on what’s healthy, what’s hazardous, and what’s should be the concern in your day-to-day life.
Being aware of where else our audience will get information from can help you develop a consistent message in connection with what might be coming from other sources. For example: if your audience likes to hear news directly from friends on Twitter or Facebook, think about what those posts might look like and if you can to adopt a similarly friendly or narrative approach to make that initial connection.
Step 2) Speak to their interests, not yours: Connect with your audience’s values on an emotional level.
Webinar take-home message: Make the story about the audience and listen to them
The presenters talked about a case study on Wetlands protection, where conservationists saw an apparent shift in their outreach efforts when they changed the discussion from “Save our wetlands because they’re nice” to “Save our wetlands so your homes won’t flood.” It might seem unscientific to think about communicating science by playing on the emotions of your audience, but communication without any empathy is always destined to fail. You can develop trust with someone by showing that you’re interested in their problems, not just your own. Another message I like from this step is to be a good listener: you can quickly learn what is important to someone by hearing things from their perspective.
3) Explain the risk (or the research): Help your audience gain an understanding.
Webinar take-home message: Go from the top down
As scientists we thrive on the details of the data before coming to a decision, but as people we thrive by seeing the big picture and how things fit together. When talking about a particular risk or your own research, start off with the impacts and then work your way to the nitty gritty. It can also help you make a connection by talking about science in a way that’s more obvious than error bars and biological replicates: residential flooding, asthma rates, and salmonella infections are all things that people can see and connect to.
4) Offer options (or actions) for reducing risk: Provide some hope instead of just doom and gloom.
Webinar take-home message: Talk about both the small and big picture solutions
If your message involves telling your audience how the world is going to end and there’s nothing they can do about it, you’ll lose them. People can only intake a certain level of feeling helpless and fearful about a situation and at some point will just stop caring about a situation entirely. Some topics are difficult to talk about in a positive light (“There’s ONLY a 20% chance you’ll get cancer!”) but giving a suggestion for how people can help mitigate some aspect of risks provides a positive spin to the situation, as much as it’s possible. A few examples include encouraging volunteer activities such as planting trees or providing better ways for people to properly disposing of unused prescription drugs. Having an empowerment to-do list will also help others feel more involved with the problem and that they can actually work towards a solution on their own.
5) Work with trusted sources: Teamwork to achieve a common goal.
Webinar take-home message: Working with partners can broaden the audience for both of you.
The workshop instructors presented a case study of a collaborative project between the NAACP, the Sierra Club, and a local bike shop who all worked together to put on a local bike tour. The event introduced community members to groups they didn’t yet interact with through an activity organized by groups they already had established trust with.
Doing these types of cross-sector collaborations broadens your perspectives by allowing you to hear about other groups and how they communicate with their audience—perspectives you can use on how you communicate with your target group. This type of work can also lead to some new conversations among people you never thought you’d interact with—think of inviting a pensioners-only book club to your lab to talk about your research. You can then see the differences between their questions from questions coming from a group of primary school students or from your peers.
6) Test your message: Tell your story to someone who’s not in your research group.
Webinar take-home message: ….and be ready to make changes when you tell it to someone else the first time.
Nothing is perfect in a first draft, so if you’re preparing new material then allow for some additional time to react appropriately when you get feedback. It’s hard when you put so much energy into explaining something or making figures and designing graphics, but if it’s not working on a subset of your audience, it won’t work with the majority of them. Remember that your goal is to have a message click, not just to get it done the first time and move on with your life—so be ready to invest the time and energy to make it matter.
7) Use multiple communication venues: Understand where your audience is listening.
Webinar take-home message: Meet your audience where they are
Twitter and Facebook are great ways to connect—if your audience is on the website regularly and follows your posts. If you’re looking to reach an older or less tech-savvy target group (which is not necessarily the same in this day and age!), they might not find your message using a hashtag. Conversely, if your target group has a monthly meeting on Wednesday at 8pm at a local bar, show up and have a pint. Having a great message doesn’t do you any good if the message only gets to your social network. Know where your target audience is and where they go looking for information, and be there waiting for them.
And with that two-week crash course, you are now ready for Risk Communication 301: Applied Risk Communication tactics. Get out into the world, craft your message, and get it to your audience in the place they’re looking for information. And if you’re wondering what the risks are in sharing your research with a new audience, you’ll be happy to know that engaging in risk communication has no potential hazards associated with its use or implementation. But it might be a good idea to bring your flood pants, just in case.
This week we have another collaborative post from guest blogger Namrata Sengupta. She’ll be introducing the concept of risk communication in environmental science and toxicology. Next week we’ll be following up on her introduction with a more detailed look at ways of approaching risk communication approaches and a review of a recent webinar hosted by NOAA. Enjoy!
“It is ironic to think that man might determine his own future by something so seemingly trivial as the choice of an insect spray.” – Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
In 1962, the American conservation biologist Rachel Carson published a book called ‘Silent Spring’. She described the effects of man-made contaminants and their potential of harming wildlife. The book detailed a study on thirty five bird species which were nearing extinction caused by these contaminants entering water bodies, and the story facilitated the ban on DDT in 1972. The book is considered as the scientific foundation for modern environmentalism in America, including the establishment of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) in 1970 as well as the Clean Air Act (CAA) and Clean Water Act (CWA) later that same decade.
Carson was an early pioneer of the field of risk communication. Her book powerfully displayed the combined intellect and thoughtfulness of a person who was a scientist, poet, nature-lover and activist all in one. She inspired a generation of people to become well-informed and to realize the importance of getting involved in environmental health research.
In the modern age of chemical industrialization, the existence of the CWA and CAA has played a major role in protecting both wildlife and human health.
Even 50 years since the publication of Carson’s novel, environmental science and toxicology continues to grow. From decoding manmade chemicals, understanding the complexities of cancer, or using advanced statistical techniques to explaining ecosystem dynamics, our field has expanded not just to labs and journals but also to applications and implications in public health policy and decision-making. Environmental scientists and toxicologists now realize the relevance of their work in policy making but are also constantly critiqued by industry, government, and policy makers who are using their work.
The US EPA developed guidance and structure for characterizing the hazards associated with exposure to environmental contaminants to both wildlife and a human population, which is called risk assessment. The purpose of a risk assessment is to evaluate the potential for exposure to a chemical in the environment as well as the potential impact of these chemicals.
The process of characterizing the potential for chemicals to harm humans or wildlife through risk assessment is an important component of policy making. It provides scientific support for decision making and limits the pervasive social and governmental influences. But regulatory science is not always clear, neither to the government nor to the public. Because of this lack of clarity, the EPA is working to develop better strategies not only for risk assessments but also for communicating the implications of risk to the general public.
What is Risk Communication?
Risk communication is the interaction between environmental risk assessment scientists, managers, policy makers, and public stakeholders. For effective risk communication to occur, all impacted stakeholders for a particular setting should be a part of the communication process from the beginning. It is extremely important to identify relevant stakeholders (generally done as a part of risk management strategy) and to develop communication streams to fit their needs. It is also crucial to engage in two-way communication, where stakeholders are able to voice their perspectives, questions, and opinions directly to scientists.
One of the biggest challenges of risk communication is that it is generally the most overlooked aspect of risk assessment and management. Scientists often forget the importance of being able to communicate effectively about their research and scientific opinions when working with a diverse audience. This lack of effective communication has occasionally challenged the ability of industry and government officials to interpret the scientific evidence which can inform regulatory affairs.
Another challenge is how much information should be shared directly with the general audience. In today’s world of the Internet and mass media playing critical roles in science communication, scientists need to be cautious about the interpretation of their data. Strategic training, information sharing sessions, and orientation with the public should be planned by both scientists and policy makers when discussing topics which affect wildlife and human populations.
Why is Risk Communication important?
Our environment, food, and personal health are threatened by exposure to environmental pollutants and bacterial hazards on a daily basis. While there are research and quality control safeguards towards protecting us and our ecosystems, there are times when we may encounter an additional crisis event, such as an oil spill. The communication associated with both daily and event-based risks needs to be a continual and evolving process and not just for a one-time crisis management initiative.
The topics widely covered under the umbrella of risk communication are generally:
1. The levels of risk (environmental/health)
2. The significance of the particular risk
3. The regulations, decisions, and policies in place to deal with these risks
Previously, risk communication was often thought of as a “linear process”, but now experts and all concerned stakeholders understand that it is a “cyclic process”.
In next week’s post, we’ll go into more detail on methods for how to use the cyclic process of risk communication. A big thanks to Namrata for introducing us to risk assessment and communication! For more of her writings, be sure to check out her science and outreach blog.
Since the next semester is fast-approaching, the editors of Science with Style and the University of Landau’s EcotoxBlog are collaborating on a guide to help students find their own style of studying. Enjoy!
As Ned Stark (or maybe it was actually your professor) once wisely said: Autumn is coming. Do you find yourself still in relaxation mode after a leisurely summer, or can you already sense that calm before the storm? We’re already well into September, with the next semester looming ahead of us in UK, Germany, and many other parts of the world. Regardless of what mindset you’re in, you’ll soon find that the rigors of the upcoming busy semester of exams and assignments are soon to come.
Everyone has a different way of engaging in coursework: some of us take a lot of notes, others listen, and others, well, don’t really do the whole going-to-class thing. But at some point at the end of the course, we all have to take an exam, write a term paper, or in some other way show the professor that we learned something.
Your professors will spend a lot of time teaching new concepts, explaining complicated subjects, and trying to inspire some interest in a favorite topic of theirs. But one thing a professor can’t do is to teach you how to study in a way that you can retain and reuse knowledge while being examined. Therefore, we here at the Ecotox Blog and Science with Style have collated a few tips that will make the use of your valuable time more effective:
First: Check out this video from Vox, who provide the following tips on their YouTube channel:
Don’t just re-read your notes and class readings. Re-reading isn’t helpful for retaining information. Another downside to re-reading is that the process can make you feel like you’re learning when you are really not. Reading in itself is a passive activity, but when you’re taking an exam and need to recall information, you’ll be doing something much more active. You’ll need to practice active learning if you want to be able to remember a concept thoroughly while being tested on it.
Quiz yourself. Flash cards are an easy way to do this, and depending on your own style there are lots of ways to go about making and using flashcards. You can make card-stock notecards on your own, but if you prefer a more tech-savvy approach you can make your own cards to read from your computer or smartphone. Flash cards provide that active component of studying that your brain needs in order to be able to recall information and facts on demand—just like you’ll have to do during an exam. An important suggestion in the video is to put cards that you get wrong back in the deck, which forces you to review the concept again and again until you get it right.
Visualize concepts. Create a new analogy for a complex reaction or process. Creating this analogy forces your brain to actively process the information, as you need to really understand the concept before you can explain it in a new way. You can also come up with personal connections to help you remember how things connect, such as aligning concepts to characters or a plot from your favorite TV show, game, or movie.
Avoid cramming! Cramming usually doesn’t work well, and even if you pass the exam the information will only stay in your brain for a short while. Especially if the course covers concepts that you’ll use throughout your time in university, it’s worthwhile to invest that extra study time. With better study approaches, you’ll be able to better remember a concept for a longer duration of time, not just to regurgitate it during one afternoon.
Some more tips that helped us and our colleagues during our own student times
Explain an idea back in your own words. Test to make sure you’ve got a concept down by trying to explain or teach it to someone else. You can work with classmates by organizing “explaining sessions” with each other to see if your explanations are on par with how the system actually works. This practice will also help you prepare for exams where you’ll have essay portions, as it forces you to practice how to explain something before you’re given the task on paper.
If you’re not good at staying on-task or studying independently, find an accountability buddy. Some of us find it easy to stay on task with independent assignments like studying or writing, and others might feel the need for an external or firmer deadline. The problem with exams is that there’s no deadline until you get to the exam-which is not when you want to start studying. If you find yourself struggling with procrastination, find a study partner in your class and schedule regular sessions to study together and hold each other accountable for keeping up with your study materials.
Use a study group if you need one, but be sure to stay on target. If working with groups helps you study and keep on track, then forming a study group can be a good solution. But be sure that for each group meeting you have a plan of what you want to achieve and a deadline for how long you’ll work on something. Unstructured group work can quickly fall off track or get sidelined, but having a game plan before you start and a clear objective of what the group wants to achieve will make your get-togethers more productive.
Have dedicated breaks. It’s exhausting to think of having to study “all day” and can also lead to unproductive minutes and hours if you drag things out for too long. Have a set start and stop time for when you’ll focus on studying or writing a paper. It can also help to have a dedicated study space, whether it be a corner desk in your apartment or your favorite spot in the library. Then when you’re done or need a break, you can physically leave the space and let your mind relax. If you’re worried of taking too long of a break, set a timer and allow yourself to do whatever you’d like in that set amount of time before getting back to work.
Find your incentive. Speaking of breaks, we all know that learning or writing the whole day can be very frustrating and that doing something which makes you happy during a break can help you get through a hard day’s work. Just be sure to make your breaks more rewarding by ensuring that they stay limited in size and don’t become as long as a study session. Play one campaign of your favorite online game, watch one episode of your favorite TV show, or do a particular hobby you have for a preset period of time. We promise that this will cheer you up and that you will survive until the next break!
If you’re frustrated or feel like you’re not getting something, ask for help. Even if you study independently, you don’t have to go through the learning process alone. If something isn’t sticking or you’re not sure you’re understanding a concept correctly, talk to your professor or a class tutor and get yourself on track sooner rather than later. If you miss out on understanding the basics at the beginning of the semester, you’ll be much more likely to miss out on understanding the important concepts that will build off of the basics. Don’t feel like you’re a failure if you don’t figure things out the first or second time around—TAs and professors are there to help you (they are even paid to help you do this!).
So what now?
Truth be told, studying for an exam or writing an exam paper will never be anyone’s favorite activities. But if you invest your time wisely and give some of these tips a try, you can work on finding your own style of studying and become a much more effective student. Being more effective will mean more successes for the amount of time you invest, and this will allow you to achieve what any student aims for: getting good grades while still having enough time for the nice things in life :)
We hope guide had some helpful hints for you to study with style. Wishing you a successful start into the new semester!
- Erica & Jochen
PS: We are interested in what works best for you! Any other tips on mastering exams or term papers? Let us know by contacting us at Science with Style or the EcotoxBlog and we’ll spread the word. Any advice from those who already successfully completed their studies is also highly appreciated.
PPS: Want to read more about their Master’s program in Ecotoxicology and their research? Be sure to check out Landau’s EcotoxBlog.
My husband and I spent last bank holiday weekend exploring the gorgeous scenery in and around Bergen, Norway. The weather on that late August weekend was what can only be described as distinctively Scandinavian. It’s a mix of gorgeous, sunny moments that reveal postcard-worthy scenes of rolling hills and fjords along with the constant threat of clouds and rain. The pictures taken during our hikes fail to capture the time we spent walking in the pouring rain and the ones from our incredible ferry ride through the fjords north of the city don’t show my husband and I in nearly full winter regalia, with hoods and hats to protect our heads from the intense winds.
Norwegians have a saying (which rhymes in Norwegian) about the weather: “Det fins ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær,” which translates to “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” It’s a phrase that captures two aspects of the Norwegian culture: their love of being appropriately outfitted and their disdain for making an excuse not to do something. On the first day of our trip we did a long 22 km hike from Ulriken to Fløyen, and during our rainy ascent we were passed by numerous groups of fast-paced Norwegians. Whether they were big families or solo hikers, all of them seemed completely unphased by the wet and slippery rocks or their (likely) wet and uncomfortable socks.
Coming back to the UK after the long weekend, it only took one rainy day to see the contrast between Scandinavia and the UK. An afternoon shower found numerous people caught in the rain without umbrella or jackets, wearing canvas-side shoes on a day forecast to be wet, followed by a general clearing out of the city center as soon as the wet weather came. Seeing this contrast between how two rainy countries deal with wet weather also brought forth another realization: when looking for a career as a scientific researcher, the forecast seems to always call for rain. The market is competitive, research budgets are tight, and a long-term contract might not always be easily in easy reach. Given that the forecast might not change in the near future, the question then becomes: what can you do to weather-proof your career?
If you’re in the midst of a PhD, your main focus will generally be your own project. You’re thinking about lab work, papers, committee meetings, and all the other things you need to do just to get done. It’s exhausting to think about both finishing and what you’ll do after you finish. Post-docs and early career researchers might have a focus which is more ‘career’-oriented, but in the midst of the pressures of our own projects, grant proposals, and trying to figure out what comes next, the thought of actually getting there feels scary. But just as you wouldn’t go on a trip or on an errand run without checking the weather and bringing your sunglasses or umbrella or jacket as needed, you shouldn’t charge on ahead through a job without being ready for what happens when you step outside into the real world.
The good news is that hauling some extra gear in your bag isn’t as exhausting as you think it is, since a lot of these ‘weatherproof’ skills are becoming more easy to find and more packable than ever before. Regardless of what stage of your career you’re in, here are a few things that will make your career ready for whatever weather lies ahead:
Take a skills inventory. Before you run off to the outfitter store to buy one of everything, start off by figuring out what you already have. Review your current CV and give it a critical read-over, as if you were reviewing the CV of someone applying for a job in your lab. Think about the skills that you have or what you do every day, be it emails or coordinating lab meetings or multi-tasking in the lab and office. Is your CV up-to-date and does it capture all your skills? Are there courses or training programs that you completed outside of your standard curriculum that might be useful later on? Is there an activity you did as volunteer work or as the leader of a group that’s relevant and can be highlighted?
Doing a skills inventory involves thinking critically about all the work you’ve done, both in and outside of the lab, and how your skillset can be presented in a way that shows its relevance to a potential employer. Especially if you haven’t thought about your CV for a while (or since you first made it), going through your extracurricular activities and professional skillsets might help you realize there are skills you didn’t know you had-just like how digging through your closet at the start of a new season reminds you or a few pieces of clothing you forgot about since you didn’t wear them for a whole year.
Check the forecast. A forecast is rarely perfect, but it can help you figure out existing weather patterns and to get a sense of what might lay ahead. In your career, you won’t be able to get a 100% accurate prediction of what the field will look like once you’re actually ready for a job, and you might not even know exactly where you want to go next. But at any stage, you will have some amount of an idea of what or where you want to be, whether it’s a city, region, sector, or field.
Regardless of where you want to go, check the forecast by scoping out the job market well in advance. Find a few job websites or email listservs to be a part of and take a look at what the jobs are looking for. Since you’ve already done your inventory and you know what gear you have, you can figure out if you have all the gear you need. If you’re missing something, you can decide what you need to pick up before you hit the road.
Read some travel reviews to find out what it’s really like. You probably already have an impression of what your ideal career and your dream job will look like. You know that all you need to do is get the post and you’ll love it! It’s similar to getting a postcard in the mail of some picture-perfect exotic scenery that makes you instantly say I wish I was there…But before you fall in love with something you’ve never seen first-hand, read the reviews.
It’s here that your professional network can help set you up for success. Connect with your colleagues and mentors and reach out to new contacts who work directly in the field you’re interested in joining. Arrange an informational interview over skype, ask to see their CV and/or have them look at yours, and see if their experience matches up with your preconceived impression. A 5-star review can be just the thing you need to give you the inspiration and confidence you need to set forth, and a less-than-stellar review can show you that there might be a better destination on your horizon.
Have one of everything in your bag. It’s tempting to only bring flip-flops and shorts on your tropical vacation, but the Caribbean islands can still get hurricanes. Just as it’s good to have an extra rain jacket, it’s also a good idea to keep your own portfolio of skills diverse. Your time as a PhD student and ECR is perfect for this, as it’s the stage in your career when your time can be a bit more flexible. You can use a wide assortment of techniques and should feel encouraged to try new things on a frequent basis instead of doing the same thing every time you’re in the lab. If your work is computer-focused, be sure to get try programs or languages that others may use. That way if you end up with an employer that prefers one of the other, you’ll be able to say that you at least have some familiarity with the one they’ll use. Once you arrive at your destination and know you’ll stay there for a while, you can stock up on things you’ll need more of. But until you get there and know for sure what you’ll need in your bag, play it safe and keep a little bit of everything on hand.
Adopt a Norwegian attitude to bad weather. The job market is a rainy place to visit, and it’s tempting to want to stay inside the warmth of your current job or project when you can hear the sounds of the downpour outside. But that doesn’t give you an excuse for staying inside: at some point you have to suit up with the best outfit and equipment you have and give the day all you’ve got, even though you might get your boots wet or your hat blown off. The best way to get through the downpour is to approach it as optimistically Scandinavian as possible and remind yourself “There is no bad job market, only bad cover letters.”
There won’t ever be a “Five easy steps to your dream career” post here on Science with Style, since finding a job is as much of its own journey (with the occasional bit of rain and thunder). Preparing yourself now by making a thorough inventory, picking up some tips from colleagues, and adding some new skills to your pack, you can gain the confidence and the preparedness to be able to go for it, regardless of what’s waiting for you. Walking through a rain storms is certainly not an enjoyable feeling, but occasionally a rainy day will bring a nice reward when the clouds clear. All it takes to find your job at the end of the rainbow is to take the first step outside and get out there!