Effective scientific communication is really hard
This summer I met a few cast members from Saturday Night Live, including the comedian Mikey Day. I’m a big fan of the show and have watched it since old enough to stay up until 11:35pm on Saturdays. We talked about the their creative solutions for comedy during lock down, predictions of NYC outbreaks in the fall, and ultimately the massive number of people who will have died in the pandemic.
Near the end of our conversation, Mikey suggested to his cast-mates that it would make a hilarious SNL sketch to have an epidemiologist a cocktail party. I didn’t get the joke at first. He graciously explained that everyone else at the party wants to have fun and relax, but the epidemiologist can’t help being overly enthusiastic about discussing modeling forecasts of hundreds of thousands dead. Oops. Self-awareness rushed through me as I turned red with embarrassment.
It was clear that I had lost touch with how conversations about thousands dead can make regular people feel.
Don’t be such a scientist
One of the most valuable books I read in 2020 was “Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style” by Randy Olson. It emphasizes the differences in communication techniques to be compelling and understood by everyday people versus a scientific podium presentation at an academic conference. An essential element is story telling.
In communicating to the public scientists must be aware of how to “hook” their audience early on and then fulfill that desire to know which they have just created. Don’t assume that everyone is just as interested in the scientific topic as you are. You must work to generate that interest and then fulfill it.Wired Book Review by Brian Switek
Simplifying complex research findings into key points is much harder for me than writing down the background, methods, results, and discussion sections for a scientific manuscript. Sneaking key points into storytelling is mastery.
I continue to learn more about communication from each public speaking experience. Here are a few of my upcoming science talks and recent press interviews. Each one required substantial preparation and practice, but it’s worth it for the opportunity to contribute and share new ideas about things that are important to me.
- National Summit on Epi Modeling and Prediction (Nov 12)
- ISPOR Europe: Women in HEOR (Nov 17)
- UK Health Data Research Alliance Symposium (Dec 1)
- Good Morning America on ABC
- The Atlantic
National Summit on the Science and Technology of Epidemiological Modeling and Prediction
November 12, 2020
To maximize America’s ability to respond to infectious disease outbreaks as well as threats posed by the intentional release of biological agents, high priority is being placed on improving capacity and capability in epidemiological modeling and prediction. The National Summit was organized by the US National Science Foundation, Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, in coordination with The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. I’ll be speaking on a panel about data and facilitating a breakout session on epidemiological model verification and validation.
ISPOR Europe 2020
Women in HEOR Session: Adapting to the ‘New Normal’
Tuesday, 17 November 2020 | 15:00-16:00 (CET)
ISPOR is the International Society for Pharmacoeconomics and Outcomes Research; HEOR is the field of Health Economics and Outcomes Research.
As the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact stretches on, how does one learn to thrive and advance their careers in this “new normal?” This panel of highly successful women in HEOR from a diverse array of geographies, work sectors, and career stages will share how they have adapted to the virtual work environment.
Session host, moderator, and panelists include:
- Julia F. Slejko, PhD; University of Maryland; Baltimore, MD, USA;
- Olivia Wu, PhD; University of Glasgow; Glasgow, Scotland, UK;
- Blythe Adamson, PhD, MPH; Flatiron Health; New York, NY, USA;
- Nancy J. Devlin, PhD; University of Melbourne; Melbourne, Victoria, Australia;
- Ebere Onukwugha, PhD; University of Maryland; Baltimore, MD, USA
- Louise Timlin, MSc; Eli Lilly and Company; Windlesham, Surrey, UK.
This initiative seeks to foster diversity in HEOR—with the knowledge that diversity in the field will result in better research and better healthcare decisions. Request to be added to ISPOR Women in HEOR LinkedIn group here.
Open to the public, register for Virtual ISPOR Europe 2020
UK Health Data Research Alliance Symposium
December 1, 2020
The objective of this symposium is to bring the National Health Service (NHS) England, academia, government, industry and charities communities together to drive forward the UK’s health data research strategy.
I’ll be speaking on a panel about scaling up data services to meet national and global challenges, chaired by Ben Gordon, the Executive Director of Hubs and Data Improvement at Health Data Research UK.
Open to the public, register here
Adapting style for media
The CDC Field Epidemiology Manual chapter on Communicating During an Outbreak or Public Health Investigation provides us with the following advice to prepare for TV interviews: “Appearances are important. Be likeable; smile, but only when appropriate. Be calm, and guard your facial expressions; you do not want to look shocked when the reporter asks a difficult question.”
The pandemic has stretched me. Media interviews have demanded talking points, makeup, ring light, and curated Zoom backgrounds with a plant. If you thought scientific peer reviewers were tough, welcome to the surprise of having your office publicly scored by Room Rater on Twitter.
Many interviews were not great. I improved, stumbled, improved. Live on CBS News in early September, I had planned to say that “you can get both a COVID test and flu vaccine at your local pharmacy” but then I accidentally said “you can get a COVID vaccine and flu test at your local pharmacy.” Not correct. It was a low point. I felt like giving up speaking to anyone besides mathematicians and my family.
UPDATE: My score on Room Rater improved with more practice and I was thrilled to hit 10/10 below
“Since brevity is the soul of wit
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief…”Hamlet, Shakespeare
I’m proud of two memorable press interviews. One was with journalist and news anchor T.J. Holmes for Good Morning America and the other was with staff writer Robinson Meyer for The Atlantic. Both men asked me good, challenging questions that required thoughtful, respectful, evidence based answers. To avoid jargon and technical terms, I imagined I was talking to my mom and childhood friends from my hometown.
I’m an introvert’s introvert. Each time I speak with the press, though painful, it strengthens my skills. From my experience and training in public health and economics, they don’t teach us this in school. Maybe we should start?
Special thanks to CDC, NSF, ISPOR, HDR UK, ABC, and The Atlantic for the invitations to engage and share perspective.