#MySciComm: Josh Silberg on embracing scicomm skill development

This week, Josh Silberg responds to the #MySciComm questions!

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Josh Silberg holds a moon snail shell at Miracle Beach (Vancouver Island). Josh grew up in Calgary, Alberta – 10 hours inland from the coast. Yet, Miracle Beach was where he fell in love with the ocean, after doing a beach seine with his grandma. (Photo by Jessica Silberg)

Josh Silberg is a science communicator with the British Columbia-based Hakai Institute. In his previous life as a marine ecologist, he studied creatures ranging from dolphins to whale sharks to rockfish, but he likes to think that he has no species bias. He holds a Master’s of Resource and Environmental Management from Simon Fraser University. He loves photography and any outdoor activity under the sun, or in the rain, or on the snow. Occasionally, he writes rhyming poems about biology. Connect with him @joshsilberg and on his website.

The #MySciComm series features a host of SciComm professionals. We’re looking for more contributors, so please get in touch if you’d like to write a post!


Okay, Josh…

1) How did you get into the kind of SciComm that you do?

Searching for the right graduate program brought on a mini-existential crisis.

Two years after finishing my undergraduate degree, I figured graduate school was the next logical step to develop a career. But there was a problem. I didn’t know what career I was developing. I struggled to narrow down where I wanted to apply, because I couldn’t answer a key question: what did I want to be when I grew up?

“I want to be a marine biologist!” had been my answer since I was a kid. But in my undergrad years, I realized ‘marine biologist’ is more of an abstract thought than a single profession. I could be a research scientist, or work as a consultant, or do animal husbandry at an aquarium, or any number of other professions. ‘Marine biologist’ was no longer specific enough.

I found a graduate program at Simon Fraser University that fit, mostly because it didn’t narrow things down at all.

I was exposed to all sorts of disciplines. In addition to a research project, the courses ranged from economics to conflict management to public policy. I’d call the program interdisciplinary, but that word is on Carl Zimmer’s index of banned words, for good reason.

I eventually came to think of graduate school as skill development.

It’s not the degree, per se, that leads to a job. Letters after your name only get you so far. What makes you stand out are the marketable skills you gain during your degree. Lucky for me, my supervisor encouraged extracurriculars.

I attended social media and scientific writing workshops. I completed a non-credit certificate in university teaching and learning. I helped design and maintain our lab website. I participated in as many conferences as I could. I honed my photography abilities.

All of these activities were instrumental to my transition to full-time science communications—a career path I didn’t even know existed before I began graduate school.

When I finished my master’s, the Hakai Institute, who’d supported me during my degree, was looking for someone to fill a broad science communications role. There wasn’t a specific job description or job posting, but they had a sense they wanted someone doing dedicated communications work. It was a case of right place, right time.

But to be in that place, I needed the array of science communication skills required for the job.

Skills that have proved valuable for my science communication job include: writing, editing, photography, public speaking, comfort using various social media platforms, networking, familiarity with website content management systems (e.g. WordPress), graphic design, teaching, improvising, and awareness of the evolving media landscape.

Now, I write 500- to 1,000-word blogs to share the science stories emanating from the Hakai Institute. I handle the social media accounts on twitter, YouTube, facebook, and instagram. I also upload content to our website, provide background scientific research for videos, handle media requests, give scicomm presentations, help design the occasional infographic, and whatever other communications tasks are needed. It’s a broad position that is ever-evolving depending on the needs of the organization.

I’ll never be done trying to further develop my science communication skills.

I especially want to improve my ability to effectively teach scicomm skills to others. Thankfully, scicomm learning opportunities are becoming increasingly available for people at any experience level. From SciComm Camp to Story Collider, COMPASS, and myriad other science communication groups, I’m encouraged that science communication is becoming institutionalized as a key component of science.

2) What are your top 3 SciComm tips and/or resources?

1. Embrace metaphor

Science communication is like a translation service. You take a fieldwork description, an academic paper, or a research talk intended for one audience and translate it to another audience in a different medium. One way to do that is through metaphor. A well-devised metaphor can be a powerful translation tool across disciplines and audiences.

But be careful to ensure your metaphor is apt. The overall meaning of the concept shouldn’t change. I check complex metaphors with the scientists I’m writing about to ensure they are accurate. If the metaphor is inexact, I brainstorm a better one with the scientist.

2. Embrace why?

It can be interesting to learn what type of science you worked on and how you did it. But, an absolute focus on what and how won’t captivate an audience if they have no idea why you did it in the first place.

The infamous “shrimp treadmill” experiment offers an example of an interesting what backed by an even more intriguing why. Those scientists weren’t training shrimp for crustacean marathons. They were testing how an economically important seafood species will react to changing ocean conditions.

Take a critical look at your scientific presentations, papers, and other outputs. Practice your presentation with people who represent your intended audience. Can your practice audience easily identify your why? If what they identified doesn’t match your intention, then discuss and make appropriate changes to make it clearer.

3. Embrace critical editors

Two weeks into my master’s degree, I sent a draft of a grant proposal to my supervisor. It came back absolutely covered in tracked changes. I knew first drafts aren’t perfect, but I was shocked by the sheer quantity of proposed changes.

The longer I worked with her, the more I appreciated her motto for a draft: “the redder, the better.” Her take was that if you haven’t put enough effort into your writing, it will be returned with a few vague comments. A draft covered in red ink signifies you put enough into the draft to be worth her valuable editing time.

I’m not referring to reviewer #3 who arbitrarily nitpicks. That isn’t constructive. I’m talking about the noble editor that critically comments on your draft. Learn from their feedback. Disagree where you have to, but be open to suggestion. Be humble. Everyone needs a critical editor.

Bonus: SciComm Pet Peeve

Do NOT ask a scientist to explain their research as if they’re talking to their grandma. How do you know their grandma and all the other women in their life aren’t badass scientists? There are better ways to encourage people to identify their intended audience without perpetuating biases. Imagine your fictional neighbors. Give them a backstory. Make them the archetype for your desired scicomm audience.