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Chemists Sharpen Their Communication Skills At UW Institute

The stereotype of a chemist may be a crazy-haired hermit shuttered away in a basement lab amid smelly beakers, a tangle of equations scrawled on the board, and a mess of papers and molecular models strewn about.

With the advent of the 2011 International Year of Chemistry, however, leaders of the chemistry community think the time is ripe to train new leaders to update this image and bring the fascination of chemistry into the limelight.

Now, an intensive training course on communication for chemists developed by Deborah Illman of the University of Washington (UW) aims to do just that.

The inaugural program in September 2009, sponsored by the National Scientific Foundation and the American Chemical Society, brought together a diverse blend of chemistry postdocs from across the country, representing institutions in the states of Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Vermont, and Washington. Six of the 15 participants originally hailed from countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America.

The format alternated short lecture and discussion periods with hands-on activities to practice new communication skills. In leading this week-long course, Illman drew from her experience as a former reporter for Chemical & Engineering News and her work directing the science and technology writing program at the UW.

A renowned panel of guest journalists shared their perspectives on public communication about chemistry. Ivan Amato from Chemical & Engineering News and Robert Service of Science offered sage advice throughout the course. Amato describes the experience in a recent issue of C&EN [87(41), p. 55, Oct. 12, 2009].

On hand to talk about the importance of liaisons between research groups and the wider world were media relations officers Leila Gray and Vince Stricherz of the University of Washington. They outlined the resources that exist in the university to help researchers publicize their work.

Alternative media and interview skills were also tackled. Alan Boyle, author of "Cosmic Log," a popular science blog on, illustrated the procedure behind starting a science blog. Boyle explained how to generate both written and visual content, and how his moderation of readers' comments actually spurred him to write future posts.

Jim Gates of KUOW radio, a Seattle affiliate of National Public Radio, used his professional touch to mentor chemists in giving a very brief synopsis of their work aimed at general audiences, nicknamed the "elevator talk." Participants gained experience in how to explain their jobs, clearly and succinctly, in a mere 90 seconds.

In another session, EffectiveArts, a communication consulting firm specializing in high-stakes negotiations, trained Institute participants to survive the often-unpredictable crucible of face-to-face interviews, using trained actors to portray a variety of personality types encountered by journalists.

"Our hypothesis was that by putting the chemists in the journalist's shoes and having them interview commonly encountered types of personalities, they would gain insights about serving as media sources themselves," explains Illman. The idea is that things can become more obvious when "the shoe is on the other foot." These simulations received the highest rating of all Institute activities, she notes.

All participants had the rare opportunity to write, edit, and revise press releases and freelance proposals. On the closing day, each chemist talked about how to implement these communication strategies after returning home.

"Most of the postdoctoral chemists, some eighty percent, who attended the first Chemistry Communication Leadership Institute were unfamiliar with the structure of news writing prior to the course," says Illman. "None had ever heard of a public information officer before or knew anything about communicating to journalists using a press release. But by the time they finished this one-week intensive experience, all had written a press release themselves and had a chance to learn and practice a range of techniques for communicating more effectively with journalists and the public."

The course was rated good to excellent by 100 percent of participants, and all would recommend it to others, notes Illman. A full 100 percent said they were more likely to engage in communication in their careers because of the program, she adds.

Michael Tarselli was a participant in the first Chemistry Communication Leadership Institute. He is a postdoctoral researcher with the Micalizio Group in the Department of Chemistry at Scripps Florida. Tarselli earned a doctorate from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a BA from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.


Participants in the first Chemistry Communication Leadership Institute gather around the fountain on the University of Washington campus. Photo: M. Tarselli

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